Jarred Kelenic's hot start subsided but can he find his way back for the Braves?

After the 2023 season, the Atlanta Braves needed an upgrade in left field and they turned to a young and talented prospect from Wisconsin to fill that need.
Atlanta Braves left fielder Jarred Kelenic had a rough start to the 2024 season.
Atlanta Braves left fielder Jarred Kelenic had a rough start to the 2024 season. / Mady Mertens-USA TODAY Sports

President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos and his staff looked at the talent available and decided to acquire the number six pick in the 2018 Draft, Jarred Kelenic, and had good reason to try to acquire him. 

Why did the Braves trade for Jarred Kelenic?

MLB Pipeline’s scouting report called him one of “…the top high school hitters, if not one of the best pure overall bats, in the 2018 Draft class” and picked him as a potentially outstanding defender. Heading into 2020, Pipeline showed improved projections in power and defense.

"2020 Scouting grades: Hit: 60 | Power: 55 ⬆| Run: 60 ⬆ | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 ⬆ | Overall: 60"

MLB Pipeline

In addition to his overall projection, Kelenic had five years of team control remaining. So, why would a team vying for a title trade a player with that pedigree? While he had become a potential Gold Glove-winning outfielder and lived up to his description as a hardworking, mature young player, he had yet to hit consistently at the Major League level.

• In 2021, Jarred Kelenic batted .181/.265/.350/.615, but finished strong, batting .248/.331/.524/.854 in September.

• In 2022, he had only 181 PA with the Mariners scattered those between April, May, and September and ended the year batting .141/.221/.313/.534.

• He started 2023 batting.296/.348/.556/.904 in his first 46 games but slumped to .204/.292/.312/.604 over the next 44 games, kicked the water cooler and fractured his foot. He returned in September and ended the season batting .253/.327/.419.746.

Kelenic always hit well in the minors, batting .302/.374/.567/.941 in 580 AAA PA over parts of three seasons. In 2022, he hit 32 doubles and homered 18 times in 394 PA with Tacoma. The PCL inflates power numbers, but doubles are a good pointer to future power, and Kelenic’s speed means he’s going to pick up hits a slower player doesn’t get. 

Those traits mean it isn’t unreasonable to believe that a change of scenery, and without the pressure of being the next great thing or expected to carry the team, the Braves felt they help him correct was keeping him from hitting. So they made him their primary left fielder to start the year, a position he still enjoys because of his defense.

So Far, Not So Good

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. Kelenic’s currently batting .260/.316/.315/.632 as of 05/07/2024. His line would look significantly worse had he not batted .400/.462/.486/.947 in his first 39 PA. However, his last 40 PA saw him slump to .132/.175/.158/.333, and it’s never a good sign when your OBP and slugging are equal, and both start with a 3 and followed by a 1. 

The Wisconsin native did finally slug his first home run as a Brave against the Red Sox on Tuesday evening and is now batting .280/.333/.373 with one homer, six RBI, and a .706 OPS. So, hopefully, things are starting to click again at the plate for Kelenic.

His saving grace has been superb, highlight-reel defense that’s cut two runners down at the plate and caused third base coaches to throw up the stop sign to others. If the lineup was hitting on all cylinders, he could hide at the bottom of the lineup and hopefully work his way into a groove. After all, Eddie Rosario hit only .255/.305/.450/.755 last year, and defensively, he can’t carry Kelenic’s glove.

But the lineup isn’t hitting, and while the man most likely to step in – 35-year-old Adam Duvall - is batting .220/.298/.380/.678 with two homers, that isn’t exactly worrying opposing pitchers.  Adding insult to injury is that the total committed to bringing Kelenic on board could have signed a pitcher and an outfielder.

Money, Money, Money

The contract shuffle began as soon as the calendar flipped to December.

• On December 3, the Seattle Mariners sent Kelenic, Marco Gonzales, and Evan White and their contracts to the Atlanta Braves for Cole Phillips and Jackson Kowar.

• On December 5, the Braves flipped Gonzales and $9,250,000 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a player to be named later.

• On December 8, the Braves sent White and Tyler Thomas to the Los Angeles Angels for David Fletcher and Max Stassi.

• On December 9, the Braves sent Stassi and $6,260,000 to The White Sox for a player to be named later.

If saving money to stay below the second competitive balance tax was the goal, the complicated contract shuffle failed. 

• Gonzalez $9.25M

• Stassi $6.26M

• Fletcher $6M

• Kelenic $760K

The Braves committed $22.27M, not including Fletcher’s $7M for 2025 for Kelenic, and not only pushed past the second $257M tier so fast it was a blur, according to Fangraphs, the team’s CBT payroll is $272,663,334, just $4.3M below the third CBT threshold.

Who could they have signed for that?

• Randal Grichuk one year, Adam Duvall, and Eric Fedde, or

• Teoscar Hernandez one year $23.5M

They could also have traded for Tyler O’Neill, who’s currently batting .292/.398/.625/1.023 for the Red Sox, who sent a Minor League pitcher with a 7.24 ERA and another young reliever to St Louis in the deal. 

That’s a Wrap

If you’re looking for an upside in this, it’s that Kelenic turns 25 in July and hasn’t reached his peak years. We know he’s capable because he’s shown in flashes that he can do everything the scouts predicted. Kevin Seitzer and his staff are good at their job, even if they can’t wave a magic wand and make Matt Olson’s hard-hit balls turn away from defenders' gloves.

Kelenic is a stud on defense, but his bat leaves a hole in the lineup big enough to drive a truck through. It has to be driving him mad trying to figure it out and I blame some of that on the Mariners rushing him to the majors, then keeping him there until he struggled himself into a slump he’s never fully recovered from.  

I hope he sits down with Chipper, Seitzer, Ozuna, or someone else and figures it out. Because I’m convinced Forrest Wall – now batting .298/.450/.447/.897 at Gwinnett – couldn’t do as well as Kelenic.

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