Rule no. 1 of MLB’s Winter Meetings: Beware of water features. Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which for the next three days will serve as Vatican City for dudes in quarter zips and running shoes, contains within its expansive halls an artificial river. I’m in the process of putting together a bounty pool to see if we can get a writer to fall in the drink by the end of the week, but so far everyone’s stayed dry.
Nobody has suffered the fate of this legendary unfortunate, who absentmindedly stumbled into a Dallas hotel fountain in 2011, live on MLB Network. I’d like to propose — with the understanding that this might be controversial — that face-planting into a water feature would’ve been a more productive use of Jerry Dipoto’s Sunday evening than what he actually got up to.
The first major transaction of Winter Meetings is as follows: The Seattle Mariners traded outfielder Jarred Kelenic, pitcher Marco Gonzales, and first baseman Evan White to the Atlanta Braves for right-handed pitchers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips.
The Mariners, who just ended a 20-season playoff drought 15 months ago, have won at least 88 games three years running. They have a superb starting rotation and an excellent core of position players up the middle, in Cal Raleigh, J.P. Crawford, and Julio Rodríguez, the last of whom is already one of the most recognizable, marketable young stars in the entire sport. And all of them — the three position players and all five starting pitchers — are 31 or younger, and under team control for at least the next three seasons on reasonable deals.
From this enviable position, the Mariners decided to trade away their closer, Paul Sewald, at the trade deadline. Sewald then helped pitch the Diamondbacks to the World Series. Then, Seattle salary dumped Eugenio Suárez, once again to Arizona. And now, they’ve used Kelenic as a means to dump more salary.
Moving to Atlanta, where he’ll be a supporting player on a roster loaded with stars, might do Kelenic some good. He’s had the misfortune of playing the first few years of his career under immense scrutiny, as so often happens to any talented youngster who was employed by, traded from, or otherwise socially familiar with the New York Mets. And because Kelenic was the tentpole figure in a trade that cost the Mariners Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz, he suffered similarly high expectations after he moved west.
All that hype makes it hard to see through the noise and examine Kelenic for what he actually is. He came out of the gate on fire in 2023, then gradually cooled off as the season wore on, and eventually missed two months with a broken foot, which he suffered a week after he turned 24.
Kelenic still has some major swing-and-miss issues; he posted a strikeout rate over 30% and a contact rate under 70% in 2023, both of which would’ve been among the worst in the league if he’d played enough to qualify. But when he does make contact, he hits the ball hard, and while the first impulse for a corner outfielder with power and strikeout issues is to platoon, Kelenic had a 115 wRC+ against lefties and a 105 wRC+ against righties this past season.
The ship has probably sailed on Kelenic playing center field regularly. And now that he’ll count Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuña Jr. as teammates, Kelenic will be quite far down the center field line of succession in Atlanta. But he still has the tools to contribute defensively in a corner. And at age 24, with less than 1,000 major league PA under his belt and five years of team control remaining, Kelenic still has upside.
At the very worst, he’s an average left fielder right now. Squint and you can see a poor man’s James Outman, maybe something better.
So what have Dipoto’s Mariners gained by ridding themselves of this player?
When this news broke, I was at dinner with the FanGraphs delegation and made what I thought at the time was an uncharitable joke: That the Mariners had probably traded Kelenic for a quad-A pitcher without an out pitch, or a quad-A infielder with a high contact rate and no secondary offensive skills.
The truth turned out to be even more cruel.
This is something like the fourth time in the past 10 months Kowar has wound up in an article of mine, and I’ve been obliged to point out that he has one of the worst ERAs in MLB history. It doesn’t feel great to keep doing this, so I hope the Mariners can move him to the bullpen, reshape his fastball, and turn him into a useful big league pitcher. The Mariners have a good track record of developing pitchers, so maybe they’ll have some luck with Kowar.
The Braves took Phillips in the second round in 2022; as you might expect from a right-handed Texas high school pitcher named Cole, Phillips throws hard, topping out as high as 98 mph as a senior. Or rather, he threw hard. Phillips had that velo spike during his senior year, then tore his UCL in April. The Braves drafted him anyway, but Phillips is now 20 years old and has never thrown a competitive pitch in the pros. Any 20-year-old in rookie ball is inherently a long shot to become an impact major leaguer, and Phillips still needs to prove that he can retain his velocity after elbow surgery.
The real value add for Seattle, if you want to call it that, is getting rid of Gonzales and White.
Gonzales, who will be 32 on Opening Day, had been a useful innings-eating starter for the Mariners for several years. Seattle acquired the former Gonzaga standout in mid-2017 in a challenge trade that sent Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis, and from 2018 to 2022, Gonzalez averaged 26 starts and 153 innings a year, with an ERA of 3.94. He never struck anyone out, but it worked well enough.
Gonzales missed most of 2023 with a nerve issue in his throwing arm, and though he’s expected to be ready for the start of next season, it’s reasonable to get the heebie-jeebies at the sight of a phrase like “nerve issue.” Gonzales is entering the last year of his contract, which will pay him $12.25 million; his deal also has a $15 million club option for 2025, with no buyout.
There’s no discounting the possibility that Gonzales’ injury could linger, or flare up, or cause untold other issues. But if he’s healthy, $12.25 million is basically market rate for an innings eater these days. It’s a rounding error off from what Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson got from the Cardinals. Update: Ken Rosenthal reports that the Braves intend to trade Gonzales to an as-yet-unnamed third destination. (Why do we need a low-strikeout innings eater? We have Bryce Elder at home.) That implies that Gonzales has positive trade value, even if Atlanta has to eat part of his 2024 salary.
White is another rough injury case; the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2017, he’s injured just about everything in an absolutely cursed professional career. He didn’t play at all in 2023, and not playing is not the worst-case scenario for White, a career .165/.235/.308 hitter.
The only reason White needs to be salary-dumped is the contract Dipoto signed him to in the 2019-20 offseason, before White had even played an inning in the majors: Six years and $24 million guaranteed, with three club options. That bought out White’s entire team control period; now, the Braves owe White $7 million in 2024, $8 million in 2025, and at least $2 million in option buyout money in 2026. (If the Braves do pick up White’s $10 million option, it would represent a miraculous comeback, particularly because playing time at first base is going to be extremely hard to come by.)
Contracts like White’s — multi-year buyouts of arbitration and early free agency years, given to players of little or no big league experience — have gone in and out of fashion in the past decade. And while they’re inherently risky, the leverage is stacked so heavily in the team’s favor that it’s really difficult to screw them up. And on the rare occasion that happens, salary dumping the contract is not the done thing.
Dipoto, an eight-year major league veteran, surely knows what happens when an infielder boots a groundball: Everyone around him yells, “Eat it!” The last thing you want to do after making a mistake is to panic and make another while trying to fix it.
When White came out of Kentucky, he was a right-handed-hitting college first baseman whose best asset was his glove. In the pros, it became clear that there were holes in White’s swing that he did not have the power to live with. It was an obvious own goal to spend a first-round pick on that player, a mistake to extend him before he faced major league pitching, and now Dipoto is giving up a big league contributor in Kelenic, in order to get White’s relatively insignificant salary off the Mariners’ books. If there is solace to be had in this trade, it’s that with White off the roster, Dipoto can’t make a fourth mistake on him.
The thing I can’t get over with this trade, and Seattle’s offseason in general, is how little money the Mariners have saved. We don’t know exactly how much; Luis Urías’ arbitration case is still pending, and the exact amount of cash the Mariners are sending to Atlanta still isn’t public. Update: it’s $4.5 million payable August 1.
But between this trade, the Suárez trade, and the Urías-for-Isaiah Campbell trade, the Mariners have gotten worse at two positions and saved $22 million, give or take, in 2024 salary. Additional commitments in salary and buyouts to White and Suárez come to $12 million, all of which would be off the books by the end of 2025.
What does saving that relative pittance do for Seattle? Does it take them down a CBT tier and improve their draft position? Does it free up money to sign another superstar? Hardly. According to RosterResource, Seattle’s projected 2024 payroll is just $115 million. They could probably sign Shohei Ohtani, clone him, sign the clone to an identical contract, and not pay the competitive balance tax. This kind of salary dump is penny-ante stuff. It’s petty. It’s undignified.
Here I’ll offer two possible scenarios that could at least partially vindicate Dipoto’s offseason so far. First: This could all be a precursor to signing Ohtani, trading for and extending Juan Soto, or both. I wouldn’t put money on either of those things happening, but it’s possible. And if Ohtani or Soto does end up wearing teal next year, I’ll take back every snide thing I wrote in the previous 1,700 words. Indeed, Dipoto promised that this new payroll flexibility would be put to use. And while I’m not convinced that White’s and Gonzales’ salaries were an implacable barrier to the Mariners contending, only two of the top 24 free agents (Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray) are spoken for at the moment. There are weeks and weeks of productive offseason left.
It’s more likely, however, that ownership is squeezing this front office. Not that it makes an iota of difference to Mariners fans who watched their team barely miss the playoffs twice in the past three years. But I can understand ownership cutting the team’s hamstrings in order to save a couple bucks, even if it’s not a praiseworthy motive. The Mariners are on particularly untrustworthy footing as the RSN bubble begins to wobble; in October, Comcast cut Root Sports from its lower cable tier, forcing customers who want to watch the Mariners to upgrade, at a net cost of $20 per month. Perhaps the meat of this trade is Kelenic to Atlanta, Kowar to Seattle, and concrete shoes to Dipoto.
As bleak as that is, I don’t see an on-field justification for this move otherwise. These are moves you make when you’re trying to win 49% of your games, not 54.