Just when you were ready to have your head hit the pillow ahead of a new work week, Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners took it upon themselves to leave many sleep-deprived late Sunday night.
The Mariners and Braves completed a trade that sent outfielder Jarred Kelenic, left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales and first baseman Evan White to Atlanta in exchange for right-handed pitcher Jackson Kowar and right-handed pitching prospect Cole Phillips.
An odd move at first glance to say the least on Seattle’s end. Kowar has struggled mightily in his three big league stints thus far (career 9.12 ERA in 74 innings), and Phillips, despite being a second round pick in 2022, has essentially thrown no professional innings so far in his career.
But for the Mariners, there are a couple things that come into play here.
First, it is reported to be a salary dump on Seattle’s end. Gonzales is owed $12 million dollars in 2024, while White has two years left on the six-year, $24 million extension he signed before the 2020 season (along with three club options in 2026, 2027 and 2028).
Of that $24 million extension, White is set to get paid $15 million over the next two seasons and there’s a $2 million buyout on his $10 million 2026 option. Considering the fact that a lack of performance, then injury, has kept White from recording an MLB plate appearances since 2021 and it is a lot for Seattle to be carrying on their books.
On the other hand, White’s luxury tax number of $4 million per year makes it less of a burden to the Braves. Who can hope for a bounce back from the former top 100 prospect if he can get healthy.
To move those contracts, the Mariners were forced to include Kelenic going to the Braves in the deal, where he could share reps in left field with Vaughn Grissom in 2024.
This trade is a no-brainer for the Braves when it comes to betting on Kelenic’s upside, with eating some money being the only real downside. Phillips is a nice prospect, but still a massive unknown compared to Kelenic, who is at least a solid big leaguer with five years of control.
On the other side, the Mariners trade all of that control of Kelenic and leave a gaping hole on the left side of the field, between this deal and the one that sent Eugenio Suarez to the Diamondbacks.
It feels like this deal needs to be the pre-cursor of something more. For Mariners fans, the hope is that they have a high-end acquisition on the horizon. Whether that is the still slim chance they sign Shohei Ohtani, a hometown reunion for Blake Snell, or a blockbuster trade, it is the only logic that makes sense here.
Because as the Mariners currently sit, they have one proven outfielder ready to be penciled into their starting lineup in 2024, and that is Julio Rodriguez. The rest of their outfield would consist of Dominic Canzone and Dylan Moore, who is a utility player.
It is fair to question why the Mariners are being forced to shed payroll to begin with, even if they are attempting to acquire a big name bat. They finished 18th in payroll in 2023 and that was before trading Suarez, failing to extend Teoscar Hernandez the qualifying offer, and now this move with the Braves.
Seattle makes a ton of money off their franchise owned bar, The Hatback, next to the ballpark, their TV deal with ROOT Sports (a network in which they own that also broadcasts Seattle Kraken and Portland Trailblazers games) and finishing top 10 in attendance this past year at nearly 2.7 million. They have more than enough coin in their bank account.
If there is no marquee move in the works, people will have more than a right to question the team’s optics.
Finally, it feels as if the Mariners are still attempting to cut down on their strikeouts. While they were unlikely excited to move off of Kelenic, he did strike out nearly 32% of the time in 2023. And that is after punching out over 28% of the time and over 33% of the time, respectively, in each of his first two big league seasons. The Mariners have now cast away all three hitters that corralled 30% strikeout rates this year in Kelenic, Suarez and Hernandez.
Many may not think the Mariners are in the mix to get Ohtani, but there is reason to believe that they still are. And this salary dump of a trade does raise some eyebrows wondering if there is a bigger picture here, along with the fact the Mariners have been so tight lipped on anything and everything Ohtani related this off-season, meeting the exact demands of his camp. Not to mention how all in on him Seattle was the first time.
For the Braves, they get a reclamation project in Kelenic who had as good of a first month as nearly anyone in baseball in 2023 (.308/.366/.615/.982 with a 169 WRC+) and is still just 24 years old. He hits the ball hard, draws his walks (9.9% BB% this past year) and can play clean defense (3 DRS in both 2022 and 2023).
Kelenic was once a consensus can’t miss, top five prospect in the game with belief that his five-tool skillset possessed him capable of becoming one of the game’s stars. Now getting a fresh start in Atlanta with one of the sport’s best run franchises, especially when it comes to player development, Alex Anthopoulos and crew clearly believe they can tap into some of that potential moving forward.
Gonzales should also slide into the team’s No. 5 spot in the rotation for the time being. When healthy, he can be an innings eater who won’t give up a lot of home runs and keeps his team in games. He threw just 50 innings this past season due to a forearm injury suffered in June that sidelined him the rest of the year, but is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training.
White has not played in a Major League game since May of 2021 due to a plethora of injuries. But the Mariners 2017 first round is a great defensive first basemen when healthy and, much like Kelenic, can also barrel up the baseball with true authority. As Olson insurance with minor league options to spare, not a bad flier for Atlanta when they can absorb his salary.
Ultimately for the Mariners, after trading away three big league pieces and letting a total of four go so far this off-season, there is a lot of heavy lifting left to do to formulate a roster ready to compete for a World Series in 2024. And with how often Dipoto swings deals, don’t be surprised if there are more on the way in the very near future.