While it was largely a quiet first day of the 2023 MLB Winter Meetings, we did get one deal in under the wire late Sunday night. The Atlanta Braves have added yet another piece to what was already the league’s best lineup, acquiring outfielder Jarred Kelenic, along with veteran lefty Marco Gonzales and Minor League first baseman Evan White, from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for pitchers Cole Phillips and Jackson Kowar.
The Atlanta #Braves today acquired LHP Marco Gonzales, OF Jarred Kelenic, INF Evan White and cash considerations from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for RHP Jackson Kowar and minor-league RHP Cole Phillips: pic.twitter.com/1s5CPtFySV— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 4, 2023
Kelenic figures to slot right into left field for Atlanta, filling the one remaining hole in their starting nine — and allowing GM Alex Anthopoulos to turn his full attention to upgrading his pitching staff over the next few days. For the Mariners, meanwhile, the official end of the Kelenic era — a player who was once the franchise’s foundation included as a sweetener in what is essentially a salary dump — raises even more questions about where this team is headed, and whether it’s serious about competing in the near future.
So: Who came out ahead here? What does this deal mean for each team? Let’s break it all down.
Jarred Kelenic trade grades
While most of the discussion of the Braves’ offseason plan focused on acquiring pitching — both in the rotation and the bullpen — Atlanta did have a hole in left field, with Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar hitting free agency and Marcell Ozuna far better suited for a full-time DH role. Kelenic fills that hole, and he does so while costing not much more than money; Kowar posted a 6.43 ERA as a reliever for the Royals in 2023, while Phillips has yet to log a single professional inning after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April of 2022.
Still, the money isn’t nothing: While the 24-year-old has one year remaining before arbitration, eating the salaries of Gonzales (set to earn $12.25 million in 2024) and White ($7 million) adds to the Braves’ luxury tax bill in both 2024 and 2025. And even beyond financial concerns, it’s worth wondering whether Kelenic was really Atlanta’s best option. He arrived in the Majors in 2021 as a consensus top-five prospect, the heart of the Mariners order for years to come. But he’s yet to really figure out Major League pitching, slashing .204/.283/.373 with 299 strikeouts in 252 games over the past three seasons. Kelenic appeared to turn a corner to start 2023, with a .982 OPS in the month of April ... only to post a .670 mark from that point on.
Kelenic remains a very good athlete with tons of power/speed potential, and he’ll be a nice defensive fit in an outfield corner. Until he shows that he can hit big-league breaking balls, however, it’s hard to project him as anything more than average at the plate — and even that might be generous at this point. Maybe putting him in a much friendlier offensive environment — he’ll likely see a steady diet of fastballs with Michael Harris II in front of him and Ronald Acuna Jr. behind him — will mitigate that issue somewhat. And again, strictly from a value perspective, it’s hard to find fault with this move. I’m just not sure he moves the needle much, and it eats up valuable financial resources. (It’s also hard to view Gonzales as a positive here given that he put up a 5.22 ERA in 50 innings last year before going down with season-ending flexor tendon surgery.)
When Seattle shipped starting third baseman Eugenio Suarez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a rather underwhelming return less than two weeks ago, we hoped that GM Jerry Dipoto had something big planned for all that salary he was saving. Now ... well, we really, really hope that Dipoto has something up his sleeve, because right now it looks like he and owner John Stanton simply aren’t serious about building a contender.
Kelenic will likely never sniff the heights he seemed destined for as a prospect. But he’s still a roughly average Major League regular with a trace of upside, which is worlds better than every other corner outfield option the Mariners have right now — with Kelenic gone and Teoscar Hernandez a free agent, Seattle is currently slated to start some combination of Dominic Canzone, Sam Haggerty, Dylan Moore and Cade Marlowe around Julio Rodriguez next season. And for that downgrade, the team received a reliever, a 20-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery and, per Dipoto’s own statement, “roster and payroll flexibility”.
Jerry Dipoto on trade with Braves that is now official. pic.twitter.com/Lk2f1B4BRd— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) December 4, 2023
That last phrase is by far the most important; this trade was about getting off of Gonzales’ and White’s contracts, and they set their Major League team back significantly to do so.
Maybe this really is all part of Dipoto’s grand design. Maybe these savings will allow them to shock everyone and swoop in for Juan Soto, or make a real run at Shohei Ohtani. But Dipoto and Stanton do not deserve any benefit of the doubt after their unwillingness to spend over the past 18 months, and even the addition of someone like Soto would still leave Seattle with a clearly below-average starting lineup. The Mariners have a star-studded starting rotation and a superstar in Julio Rodriguez; rather than taking that as a sign that now is the time to go big, however, their ownership and front office seem to content cut costs and hope for a Wild Card spot.