Kelenic eyes his 'best version' in new chapter with Braves

December 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman’s Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When  looks back on this year, he’ll celebrate his early success, lament his temper-fueled left foot fracture and anticipate the opportunity he has now to strengthen what is already a tremendous Braves lineup.

“Some of the best players in the game are on that roster,” Kelenic said. “I think that will allow me to just get comfortable in the box and really hone in on what makes me click and what makes me the best version of myself. I think if I can just focus on that, I think, you know, I'll be right where I need to be.”

We haven’t seen the best version of Kelenic since the Mets took him with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. He was ranked MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 prospect as recently as '21, but he has just a .656 OPS through the first 252 games of his big league career. 

Potential trumped production as the Braves made it clear how confident they are in their gamble on Kelenic. They took on a pair of contracts to acquire him from the Mariners and gained another unwanted contract while flipping the other two at steeply discounted costs.

By the time all those contracts were ditched, Atlanta found Kelenic’s cost for the 2024 season to be close to $17 million. How can a guy who is going to be paid $800,000 cost this much? The Braves ended up paying the Pirates $9.25 million for Marco Gonzales, a little more than $6 million to the White Sox for Max Stassi and $6 million for David Fletcher, who will now be Atlanta’s utility infielder.

Even when accounting for the $4 million the Mariners included in the trade, the Braves will pay close to that $17 million figure for Kelenic and Fletcher. That’s $4 million more than they would have paid to keep Eddie Rosario and Nicky Lopez around. But this isn’t just about 2024. This financial commitment shows how much Atlanta believes in Kelenic’s ability to be a star for many years to come.

“I had some conversations with some people in the front office, and they spoke really highly of me when we talked on the phone,” Kelenic said. “I was really happy to hear that. At the end of the day, I know that I need to just go take care of business and do my job. That's all I can control. But to hear the support that I have from an organization I haven't even played for yet was definitely reassuring. It makes me like just super excited to get to work and get out to Florida and start Spring Training.”

Looking at Kelenic’s journey, you have to wonder if he is one of the many baseball players who were adversely affected by the 2020 COVID shutdown. Not every Minor Leaguer made the most of the lost season like Spencer Strider and Michael Harris II did.

Kelenic succeeded at the Class A and Double-A levels in 2019 and then produced a 1.016 OPS in the 30 Triple-A games he played before being promoted to Seattle in '21. It didn’t take long to see he wasn’t ready or at least prepared to deal with inevitable adversity. Kelenic produced a .615 OPS in 377 plate appearances for the Mariners that year. He struggled at the start of '22, thrived after being sent down and then struggled again after rejoining Seattle’s roster.

So there was great excitement when Kelenic hit seven homers with a .988 OPS through his first 27 games of 2023. Finally, he was experiencing the anticipated breakout, right? Well, Kelenic hit four homers with a .666 OPS over the next 63 games. This stretch ended on July 19, when he kicked a water cooler and broke his foot.

Kelenic's powerful left-handed swing is an asset. His temper has long been a hindrance. But this humbling experience may have provided a great lesson.

“I took a step back, I just like kept thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing?' Like, I'm not happy, like I'm way too frustrated, I'm letting my emotions get the best of me, I'm not even enjoying this,” Kelenic said. “It made me take a step back and realize how lucky and how thankful I am to be in the position that I am.”