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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Jarred Kelenic trade appears more dubious amid Mariners’ struggles

Atlanta Braves center fielder Jarred Kelenic runs out a double during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Truist Park on June 19 in Atlanta.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

On June 29, the Braves’ revelatory leadoff hitter wasted little time. With a 1-1 count in the bottom of the first inning, Pirates rookie phenom Paul Skenes left a 98-mph fastball up in the strike zone.

Jarred Kelenic didn’t miss it.

On the contrary, the 24-year-old Kelenic flipped his hips and yanked a foolish four-seamer 367 feet over the right-field wall at Truist Park in Atlanta. He provided an early exclamation point in the Braves’ otherwise inoffensive 2-1 win.

“Kelenic turns on this … and sends it to the ‘chop house,’ greeting Paul Skenes pretty rudely!” bellowed Braves play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin. “It’s 1-0 Atlanta!”

If Gaudin thought Skenes was upset, imagine Mariners fans.

After all, Kelenic – once considered a franchise cornerstone alongside center fielder Julio Rodriguez – should probably still be in Seattle. He was traded to Atlanta last offseason, with Marco Gonzales and Evan White, for minor-league pitcher Cole Phillips (the Mariners’ No. 18 prospect, according to MLB) and 27-year-old reliever Jackson Kowar (who owns a career 9.12 ERA and underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in March).

The Mariners gave away Kelenic (and more) to save money.

Now they’re paying the price.

In 77 games and 275 plate appearances with Atlanta, the 6-foot-1 lefty is slashing .271/.315/.450 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs. Some might say Kelenic’s success has been spurred by advantageous surroundings, as the Braves’ big bats relieved pressure from the former prized prospect.

And yet: Kelenic slashed .304/.356/.544 in a sizzling June … after reigning MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Since being thrust into a more pressure-packed position, Kelenic has blossomed as the Braves’ leadoff hitter – producing a .312/.350/.559 slash line with six homers and 14 RBIs while sitting atop Atlanta’s order.

That doesn’t suggest Kelenic has succeeded in the shadows of more booming bats. Quite the opposite.

Oh, and speaking of opposite: meet the Mariners!

After unloading regulars Kelenic, Teoscar Hernández and Eugenio Suárez last offseason, a retooled Seattle offense has toiled through a marathonic three-month slump. Entering Tuesday’s games the Mariners led MLB in strikeouts (950) and strikeout rate (28.2%), and they ranked last in batting average (.217). Their 3.8 runs per game sat 27th, ahead of three teams – the Athletics, Marlins and White Sox – touting a combined record of 92-183.

Fact is, a stellar starting rotation and an atypically average division are the only things standing between Seattle and a license to sell at the trade deadline.

Instead, the Mariners (49-43) – who entering Tuesday led the Astros by two games in a mouth-wateringly winnable AL West – are buyers in need of bats.

In a perfect world they’d land a versatile and ascending outfielder with plentiful pop and multiple years of club control.

Someone like, say, Kelenic?

Instead, they’ll likely overpay for other available options. Meanwhile, Kelenic owned a higher batting average (.271), slugging percentage (.450), OPS (.765), batting average on balls in play (.356), line-drive percentage (30.6%) and wRC+ (113) than any Mariner. Without Acuña and injured outfielder Michael Harris II, Kelenic has helped the Braves (50-39 entering Tuesday) stay afloat.

Plus, Kelenic is not the only departee who has succeeded outside Seattle. The 31-year-old Hernández – who the Mariners let walk last offseason – was slashing .259/.319/.483 for the Dodgers, with more home runs (19) and RBIs (60) than any Mariner. And Jose Caballero – who was shipped to Tampa Bay for outfielder Luke Raley – leads the American League with 24 stolen bases and has been far superior to his replacement, Jorge Polanco.

But Kelenic’s success (so far) must sting the most, a prospective poster child for this organization’s difficulty in developing position players. Hernández, at most, was a booming veteran bat – a short-term solution. Kelenic may be a mammoth missed opportunity.

And that loss is only amplified by Seattle’s offensive struggles. Thus far, the Mariners have featured a fleet of underperforming returners (Julio Rodríguez, Ty France, J.P. Crawford, Cal Raleigh, Dylan Moore, Dominic Canzone), underwhelming additions (Polanco, Mitch Haniger, Mitch Garver, Luis Urías, Seby Zavala) and under-ripe prospects (Ryan Bliss, Jonatan Clase, Tyler Locklear). Raley (.252/.295/.443) and third baseman Josh Rojas (.254/.330/.375) are the only arguable exceptions. The May firing of offensive coordinator Brant Brown failed to stop the bleeding.

Though Raley has become a fan favorite, Seattle still lacks another league-average corner outfielder. The 33-year-old Haniger (.209/.283/.341, with eight homers and 34 RBIs) and the 26-year-old Canzone (.209/.288/.388, with seven homers and 44 strikeouts) have individually and collectively failed to meet that mark. Now president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto and general manager Justin Hollander must part with valuable prospects to paper over previous misfires.

But though Kelenic’s simultaneous surge is aesthetically ominous, there are also caveats. The relationship between Kelenic and the Mariners organization was tense at times, and there’s no guarantee he would have had similar success with another season in Seattle. And given his career splits in the second half (.209/.272/.378), Kelenic has yet to prove this is more than a metaphorical flash in the pan.

It’s possible, had he stayed, Kelenic might have continued to stall.

But would a 24-year-old with enormous talent, positional flexibility and an approaching prime have been better than the Mariners’ existing options?

The answer seems obvious.