NASHVILLE — Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto didn’t wait long after arriving at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center early Sunday evening to make his first trade of the MLB winter meetings.
A few hours later, Dipoto finalized a trade with the Braves that sent three familiar names to Atlanta in exchange for two players that might not be familiar to even the most diehard of baseball prospect nerds.
Left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales, outfielder Jarred Kelenic and first baseman Evan White were sent to the Braves in exchange for right-handed pitchers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips.
“I want to thank Marco, JK and Evan for the contributions to our club. All three played key roles at different stages of our growth over the past several seasons,” Dipoto said in a press release. “As we continue to work through this offseason with a goal of improving our team for 2024 and beyond, we believe the additions of Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips, as well as the roster and payroll flexibility created tonight, will move us closer to that goal.”
The two words — “payroll flexibility” — provide the impetus for the trade. As a member of an opposing team’s front office pointed out: “They are selling Kelenic for nothing so they can dump two contracts.”
Indeed, this trade seems to speak more about money than the player return. Kowar, a former first-round pick of the Royals, has failed to meet projections while Phillips has yet to throw a pitch in professional baseball.
Gonzales, who missed most of the 2023 season due to an elbow injury that eventually required surgery, is owed $12 million in the final year of the contract extension that Dipoto signed him to before the 2021 season.
White, the Mariners first-round pick in 2017, signed a 6-year, $24 million contract with the Mariners before the 2020 season. He hasn’t played in a MLB game since 2021, dealing with an assortment of core and leg injuries and multiple surgeries.
There was $15 million remaining in salary on White’s contract plus at least a $2 million buyout for a 2026 club option.
The Mariners essentially saved $29 million in guaranteed money by giving up Kelenic, who was in his final year of pre-arbitration with three years of arbitration (2025-2028) ahead.
He was once considered a foundational piece of the Mariners rebuild to success and the centerpiece of a trade that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets before the 2019 season.
But he never quite lived up to the prospect hype. He spent the 2020 COVID-shortened season at the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma. A rushed call-up in 2021 led to expected struggles and a demotion back to the minor leagues. His 2022 season was also less than expected. He made the team out of spring training, but spent much of the season in Triple-A after an awful start He did get called up late in the season and contributed to the team’s first postseason appearance in 21 years.
This past season, Kelenic posted a .253/..327/.428 slash line with 25 doubles, two triples, 11 homers, 49 RBI, 13 stolen bases, 41 walks and 132 strikeouts.
Offseason changes to his swing and his approach yielded promising results early in the season. However, Kelenic’s temper, an issue with the M’s coaching staff in the past, led to an almost two month absence after he suffered a broken foot from kicking a water cooler. The tantrum and the prolonged absence from it might have been the tipping point for the Mariners to move on from the young outfielder.
Kowar, 26, didn’t play for the Braves in 2023. He was acquired by Atlanta just after the season in exchange for right-handed pitcher Kyle Wright.
The Royals selected Kowar in the first-round (No. 33 overall) of the 2018 draft out of the University of Florida. A top 100 prospect in 2020 and 2021, he made his big league debut on June 7, 2021.
He’s pitched in parts of three seasons for the Royals, making eight starts as a rookie and shifting a reliever in 2022. He appeared in 23 games in 2023, posting a 2-0 record 6.43 ERA. In 28 innings, he struck out 29 batters and walked 20.
Phillips, 20, has never thrown a professional pitch. He was the Braves second round pick in the 2022 draft out of Boerne High School in Texas. Phillips is recovering from Tommy John surgery he suffered doing in his senior season.