The Braves have acquired outfielder Jarred Kelenic from the Mariners, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Per Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times, left-hander Marco Gonzales and first baseman Evan White are also headed to Atlanta in the deal. In return, the Mariners will receive right-handers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips. The Braves have since announced the deal, which includes cash considerations headed from Seattle to Atlanta.
Kelenic, the sixth-overall pick in the 2018 draft and a former consensus top-5 prospect in the sport, struggled to a .168/.251/.338 slash line in 558 trips to the plate across his first two seasons in the majors. Despite the brutal start to Kelenic’s big league career, he managed to put together a solid campaign in 2023 as Seattle’s regular left fielder. In 416 trips to the plate across 105 games, the youngster slashed a solid .253/.327/.419. Now Kelenic, who is not yet eligible for arbitration, heads to Atlanta with five seasons of team control remaining coming off a career-best season in the majors where he posted a wRC+ of 108.
Even that performance came with some red flags, however. While Kelenic walked at an above average 9.9% clip, his 31.7% strikeout rate ranked in just the seventh percentile among qualified hitters and his overall slash line surely benefited from a .359 BABIP. He also struggled considerably after a hot April, slashing just .235/.314/.356 the rest of the way. That said, it’s worth noting that Kelenic, who will play the 2024 season at just age-24, posted a .321 wOBA in 2023 that was actually 12 points lower than his expected number of .333. Additionally, his .359 BABIP in 2023 may not be as outlandish as his career .268 mark in the majors may suggest, as he’s never posted a BABIP lower than .323 at the Triple-A level in a season during his career. In addition, it’s possible his late-season numbers are skewed by the fact that the 24-year-old missed more than two months after he suffered a fractured foot from kicking a water cooler back in July.
Looking ahead to 2024, The Athletic’s David O’Brien relays that the Braves plan to have Kelenic and Vaughn Grissom compete for the everyday role in left field during the spring, with a platoon situation between the two possible as Grissom looks to split time between the left field and the infield dirt. That said, it certainly seems possible that Kelenic could earn an everyday role in Atlanta if he shows his step forward in 2023 wasn’t a fluke. Even if Kelenic simply repeats his 2023 campaign he would represent a notable upgrade over Eddie Rosario, who drew 122 starts in left field for the Braves last year while slashing just .255/.305/.450 (100 wRC+) in 516 trips to the plate.
To acquire Kelenic, the Braves take on the salaries of both Gonzales and White. Gonzales is owed $12.25MM in 2024, while White is owed $7MM in 2024, $8MM in 2025, and a $2MM buyout on a $10MM club option for 2026. While it’s not currently known how much cash Atlanta received in the deal, it’s fair to assume the Braves are taking on the majority of that nearly $30MM in guaranteed money, including $19.25MM in dollars owed this next season. Before accounting for the cash received from Seattle, the deal pushes Atlanta’s 2024 payroll to just over $224MM and just under $261MM for luxury tax purposes, per RosterResource. If that projection holds going forward, it would put the Braves just over the second luxury tax threshold, which sits at $257MM for the 2024 campaign.
Gonzales, 32 in February, struggled to a 5.22 ERA in 50 innings across ten starts this season before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a nerve issue in his forearm. Gonzales is expected to be ready for Spring Training in 2024 and, if healthy, could provide the Braves with a serviceable back-end rotation option who could give competition to Reynaldo Lopez and Bryce Elder in Spring Training. Prior to his injury-marred 2023 season, Gonzales had been a reliable source of innings for the Mariners in recent years, averaging 174 innings of work across four 162-game seasons between 2018 and 2022. Gonzales’s contract includes a $15MM club option for the 2025 season that does not include a buyout, though Gonzales would likely have to take a significant step forward in 2024 for the Braves to consider exercising that option.
White, 27, does not figure to be a contributor to the Braves over the life of his contract. The former top prospect owns a career .165/.235/.308 slash line in the majors and has not appeared in the big leagues since May 2021. Over the past two seasons, White has appeared in just 30 professional games with a slash line of just .200/.310/.397 at the Triple-A level during that time. White spent almost the entire 2023 campaign on the 60-day IL, first due to a left adductor strain and then thanks to hip surgery, though he too is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
In addition to taking on the salaries of White and Gonzales, the Braves parted with a pair of interesting young arms in Kowar and Phillips. Kowar’s stay in the Braves organization was a short one, as the righty had just been acquired from the Royals last month as the return in the Kyle Wright trade. As a former top-100 prospect and Kansas City’s first-round pick in the 2018 draft, Kowar is an intriguing piece despite his struggles in the majors to this point in his career. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted at the time of his trade to Atlanta, Kowar averaged 97 mph on his fastball in 2023 after converting to full-time relief duties and thanks to his eligibility for a fourth option year in 2024 figures to provide the Mariners with a fireballing, optionable relief arm headed into next season. Phillips, meanwhile, was Atlanta’s second-round pick in the 2022 draft. The 20-year-old has not yet made his professional debut after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but ranked as the Braves’ #7 prospect per MLB Pipeline prior to the swap.
As for the Mariners, the club is clearly in the midst of retooling their lineup. The club has traded both Kelenic and third baseman Eugenio Suarez and non-tendered DH Mike Ford since the offseason began while watching Teoscar Hernandez depart via free agency, leaving four major holes in the club’s lineup. That being said, the departures of those four players figure to help Seattle in their quest to improve their lineup’s contact skills next season; each of the aforementioned hitters struck out more than 30% of the time in 2024. Parting ways with four of the league’s most punchout prone bats is an excellent start toward that goal, even as the club faces an uphill battle in replacing the quartet’s production.
While replacing four members of the club’s starting lineup is no easy task, Seattle at least figures to have plenty of payroll space with which to accomplish that goal. RosterResource projects the club for a payroll of just $115MM in 2024 pending the addition of cash considerations sent to Atlanta, while Adam Judge of The Seattle Times notes that president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto indicated today that the club’s payroll will “very likely” rise in 2024 relative to its 2023 total. The Mariners posted a payroll of $140MM in 2023, meaning the club should have more than $25MM worth of room to make additions to their lineup, though it’s unclear how much Seattle is willing to surpass that $140MM figure.
Even with that amount of money available for additions, it’s worth noting that the club would need to significantly increase payroll over its 2023 levels to be able to make even one impact addition on the level of, for example, Cody Bellinger or Juan Soto. Given the number of holes the Mariners will need to fill in their lineup, it seems more likely that the club will be limited to adding mid-level salaries to its payroll. The free agent market is unlikely to offer many solutions, with the best mid-level bats such as Hernandez and Matt Chapman being among the more strikeout-prone players available this winter.
That said, the club has reportedly discussed deals for both outfielder Randy Arozarena and third baseman Isaac Paredes with the Rays recently. Adding even one of those players would surely require significant capital in terms of prospects and young players, though it’s worth noting that the Rays appear to be on the hunt for controllable starting pitching, which the Mariners have an excess of. Speculatively speaking, swinging a deal for Paredes and/or Arozarena would allow Seattle to shore up its lineup without breaking the bank, allowing the club to pursue contact-oriented bats like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. or Whit Merrifield in free agency.