Braves’ trade for Jarred Kelenic offers outfielder a fresh start with very little risk

Theoretically, pretty much any team in baseball could have made the trade that went down between the Braves and Mariners on Sunday night.

Seattle wanted to dump salary and was offering Jarred Kelenic — a former first-round pick with tantalizing talent but meager production in the bigs — as the bait. Take Marco Gonzales (owed $12 million in 2024) and Evan White (owned $15 million in 2024-25, plus another couple million in potential option buyouts) and you can take a crack at fixing Kelenic.

The M’s didn’t even want much in return. A pretty simple deal, essentially. The Braves obliged, sending pitchers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips to Seattle and baseball fans everywhere — especially Seattle — thought, “Wait, that’s it?” And that was followed quickly by, “Wait, why didn’t MY team make that deal?” from fans of the 28 other franchises. 

Truth is, though, the Braves were uniquely situated to be able to take advantage of the opportunity, and most of the other teams in baseball couldn’t make that deal. 

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For starters, Atlanta’s proactive stance of locking up core players to long-team contracts — Ronald Acuña Jr, Ozzie Albies, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Shawn Murphy, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider — gives the Braves cost certainty (and value) that other teams don’t have, so they can absorb the money owed to Gonzales and White, if they don’t trade them away. 

And because they’ve hit on every single one of those long-term contracts with position players, the Braves have a great offense. Incredible, even. In 2023, they hit 307 homers (58 more than any other team), scored 947 runs (41 more than any other team) and had a team OPS+ of 124 (10 percent better than any other team). The only “significant” loss from that lineup is left fielder Eddie Rosario, who hit 21 homers but had a league-average 100 OPS+. 

Enter Kelenic in left field, where they can afford to give him a shot at harnessing his potential. If he figures out how to unlock the potential and becomes the player he’s long been expected to develop into, the Braves will have pocketed another gem. A productive Kelenic, bringing above-average defense in left and a potent bat in the bottom half of the lineup — even if he’s great, he’s not batting higher than sixth — would make Atlanta even more dangerous in October. 

Here’s the important thing: If he doesn’t, it won’t hurt the Braves at all. Kelenic is not even their only option in left field; the club has discussed moving infielder Vaughn Grissom to a corner outfield spot, in an effort to get his bat in the lineup. Grissom, who turns 23 in January, batted .330 with a .419 on-base percentage in 102 games with Triple-A Gwinnett last year because his path at shortstop was blocked in the bigs by Orlando Arcia’s breakthrough season. 

The Braves are going to win at least 95 games in 2024 whether Kelenic hits 30 home runs and becomes an All-Star or whether he hits 3 home runs and is released in September. 

And the trade cost was minimal. Phillips was drafted in 2022 but has yet to pitch in a game as a pro because of Tommy John surgery, and isn’t really on Atlanta’s top-prospect radar. Kowar has a 9.12 ERA in 74 big-league innings and was just acquired in a swap with the Royals for Kyle Wright, who won’t pitch in 2024 after shoulder surgery. 

So, yeah. The Braves essentially got a shot at high-upside Kelenic for one pitcher who’s never thrown a pro pitch and another pitcher who won’t throw a pitch in the bigs until 2025. 

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As for Kelenic, well, he’s about to experience something new, something he’s never felt in his baseball career — an almost complete lack of pressure to perform. 

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that his trade to Atlanta happened five years to the day after he was dealt from the Mets to the Mariners as the centerpiece return of a deal that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Big Apple. With that 2018 trade, Kelenic — who was the No. 6 overall pick in the MLB Draft out of high school that spring — went from surefire Mets savior to surefire Mariners savior. The expectations placed on his shoulders were overwhelming.

His production in Seattle never reached his talent level, with the exception of maybe a few weeks or a month at a time — his first month of the 2023 season will forever be the “what might have been” moment for M’s fans, as he hit .308 with a .982 OPS, 7 homers and 14 RBIs. 

In 252 games in the bigs, Kelenic has batted .204 with 32 homers, 24 stolen bases, a .656 OPS and 0.0 bWAR. His time in Seattle was, overall, a disappointment, no other way to put it. And now he’s gone, included as part of a salary dump, It’s a rather shocking turn of events. 

But maybe it’s a good thing for Kelenic, this fresh start. Maybe, free of what other people wanted — needed — him to be, Kelenic can finally be himself. He has a chance to stop being Mr. What If? and become Mr. What Might Be. 

Either way, the Atlanta baseball club will be just fine. That’s got to be a freeing feeling for Kelenic. 

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