With the Major League Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings underway, the Atlanta Braves got things started with a bang on Sunday.
The club announced a late-night, five-player trade with the Seattle Mariners that appears to provide the solution for Atlanta’s left field vacancy. Jarred Kelenic headlined a three-player return from Seattle Mariners, who also sent veteran left-hander Marco Gonzales, first baseman Evan White and cash considerations to Atlanta in exchange for right-handed pitchers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips.
“As we’ve said, you can never have too many good players and you need depth,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said of acquiring Kelenic on the eve of the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Nashville. “We wanted to add another left-handed bat to the outfield and, with Jarred, there’s obviously upside there. We like the defense and we like the offensive upside.”
Once a highly touted mega-prospect for both the Mariners and New York Mets, Kelenic debuted with Seattle in 2021 but struggled to acclimate to major league pitching over the past three seasons.
“It starts with talent,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s still 24 years old, so (there’s) a lot of opportunity there. He’s flashed at times how good he can be. It’s certainly in there.”
Kelenic got off to a hot start and enjoyed his best season in 2023, though it was interrupted by a fractured left foot suffered when he kicked a water cooler in frustration on July 19. Overall, he batted .253 with 11 home runs, 49 RBI and 13 stolen bases, posting a .746 OPS in 105 games for Seattle.
The hype around Kelenic has been significant throughout his young career. The sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Mets, he was traded to the Mariners in a blockbuster deal that sent All-Star closer Edwin Diaz to New York.
Despite showing an advanced approach at the plate in the minors, where he sports a .295 average and .908 OPS in 1,331 plate appearances, Kelenic’s strikeout rate with Seattle ballooned to 30.7 percent as he batted just .204 across 252 major league games.
As for the factors that led to those struggles and what it may take to unlock Kelenic’s considerable potential at the plate, the Braves are hoping to find those answers upon his arrival.
“Until we’re around him and we know him, it’s hard for me to say,” Anthopoulos said. “I don’t think it’s fair. We obviously did a lot of (background) work on him with teammates and so on. Obviously, he’s had a lot of expectations and was highly touted. We do think this’ll be a good spot for him.”
Atlanta’s offense just turned in one of the greatest seasons in MLB history, tying the single-season record with 307 home runs while becoming the first team ever to post a collective .500 slugging percentage. With that kind of firepower, Anthopoulos believes it will help take the pressure to produce off of Kelenic as he settles into a new organization.
“We have a deep lineup,” Anthopoulos said. “Whoever is in this lineup, you’re one of nine. There’s not any more expectation, whether that’s Vaughn Grissom or Jarred Kelenic or any of these guys. We have a good hitting environment with the group. I think these guys have all gotten better.”
With Kelenic now on board, Anthopoulos indicated that the Braves search for a left fielder has likely concluded.
The Braves are expecting to give Grissom an opportunity to help out there as well. Anthopoulos revealed that Grissom approached the club about playing the outfield in Puerto Rico this winter in order to give himself the best chance to find playing time in 2024.
The departure of Eddie Rosario opened up the oft-discussed possibility of Grissom moving to the outfield, something Atlanta refrained from trying in Triple-A Gwinnett in 2023.
How exactly the Braves will deploy that duo in left field is up to manager Brian Snitker.
“I talked to Jarred and told him we really like Vaughn,” Anthopoulos said. “We think Vaughn’s got a shot to be out there (in left field) and we already know he can play the infield. We think Jarred has got a chance to be a tremendous player as well and we’re trying to win a World Series. Snit will be the one to make the decisions but go out there and compete and if you’re playing well, we’re going to find at-bats for you.”
Given that Anthopoulos and the Braves see significant potential in Kelenic, who still makes the league’s minimum salary and will not become a free agent until 2029, the club showed a willingness to take on significant salary in both Gonzales and White. That duo is owed a combined $29 million through 2025.
Seattle included $4.5 million in the deal to help offset that amount, essentially dealing away Kelenic in order to shed two undesirable contracts.
Gonzales, 32, is due $12 million in 2024. He was 4-1 with a 5.22 ERA in just 10 starts before undergoing season-ending surgery to address a nerve issue in his pitching forearm. A former first round pick by the Cardinals in 2013, Gonzales compiled a 61-47 record with a 4.08 ERA in 148 starts over the past six seasons in Seattle after being traded over by St. Louis in 2017.
Though Gonzales is expected to be healthy and ready for spring training, it remains to be seen how and if he will factor into the club’s rotation plans. Atlanta could look to unload Gonzales’ salary in a separate deal this winter. That could also be the case for White, 27, who was Seattle’s No. 1 pick in 2017.
Once considered a can’t-miss prospect by Seattle, White signed a six-year deal worth $24 million in 2019 while still in A-ball. Since then, he has undergone a pair of hip surgeries including one that ended his 2023, a season that began with a groin injury that cost him the first two months.
The Mariners’ early investment in White failed to pay dividends.
He won a gold glove as a rookie in 2020 but is a career .165 hitter who last played for Seattle in 2021 and logged just 30 games in the minors over the past two seasons. White is owed $15 million over the next two seasons — $7 million in 2024 and $8 million in 2025 — and has club options for the following three seasons. Atlanta is responsible for at least the $2 million buyout of his $10 million option for 2026, bringing the total amount tied up in White to $17 million.
As for the players the Braves gave up in the deal, Kowar never pitched for Atlanta and was the return from the Kansas City Royals in the recent Kyle Wright trade. The hard-throwing 27-year-old owns a 9.12 ERA in 39 major league appearances. Phillips, 20, was the Braves’ second round draft selection in 2022 but has yet to make his professional debut after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of that year.
This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.