Jarred Kelenic gets fresh start he wanted with Braves: ‘It’s up to him to perform’

Atlanta Braves left fielder Jarred Kelenic walks to batting practice facility during spring training baseball workouts at CoolToday Park, Thursday, February, 15, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Atlanta Braves left fielder Jarred Kelenic walks to batting practice facility during spring training baseball workouts at CoolToday Park, Thursday, February, 15, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

NORTH PORT, Fla. — The Braves lineup is filled with can’t-miss prospects who didn’t miss when they got their chance in MLB. Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Michael Harris II all flourished as young major leaguers. The Braves were quick to sign them to long-term contracts that have paid off.

That’s not how it went for outfielder Jarred Kelenic in Seattle.

Kelenic accused the Mariners of not promoting him from the minor leagues in 2020 to punish him for not signing a contract extension (the team said no promises were made). When Kelenic did get his chance, he struggled to hit for 93 games in 2021 and 54 in 2022. Kelenic had a breakthrough season in 2023, but the Mariners promptly traded him to the Braves in December.

Considering the circumstances, it’s no surprise that Kelenic said he was “ecstatic” to join the Braves. His new team is banking on the change of scenery to unlock Kelenic’s tremendous potential as a ballplayer.

“This is a good place to come into for a young guy like that because we’ve got a lot of young, successful major leaguers in that (clubhouse),” Braves manager Brian Snitker said this week at the team’s spring training complex. “It’s a great situation for him to have success. The situation is good, the atmosphere is good, the work that he’ll get is good.

“It’s up to him to perform.”

Kelenic couldn’t do it in Seattle. The Braves believe he’s still on the come at 24 years old. That’s a reasonable expectation. The counterpoint is that Kelenic, who bats left, has been an above-average MLB hitter for only two months.

A swing change produced better results to begin last season. Kelenic had a .846 on-base plus slugging in 53 games through May. His OPS dipped to .637 over the final 52 games. And Kelenic still was striking out a lot even when the outcomes were good.

Kelenic said he’s working on more tweaks to his swing during spring training. The goal is to hit the ball through the middle or to the opposite field. That could be a way for Kelenic to cut down on his 30.7% strikeout rate in 974 plate appearances. That’s much too high for any batter, especially one with below-average power numbers.

We’ll see if Kelenic’s swing adjustments lead to better results.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you numbers-wise what I’m going to bring you,” Kelenic said. “I’m just going to go out and give you a 110% effort, and at the end of the year I’ll look up, and I think we’ll all be happy with (the numbers).”

It already seems that changing teams has had a positive effect on Kelenic. He has been an energetic, bubbly presence in the team’s clubhouse at spring training. He seems genuinely happy to be here. Of course, that’s before any games have been played, but it makes sense that Kelenic has a sunnier outlook with the Braves.

There’s certainly less pressure on Kelenic now. The Mets selected him No. 6 overall in the 2018 amateur draft. Kelenic already was a rising prospect when the Mariners acquired him in December 2018 for Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó.

Kelenic was expected to help the Mariners become winners again. They’ve had one playoff appearance since 2001. With the Braves, he’ll be a secondary lineup piece for a team that’s seeking its seventh consecutive division title.

Kelenic said he was “super happy” when he was told about the trade, which he considers a “fresh start” for him after the rough start to his career in Seattle.

“You’re going to a winning atmosphere and the reputation with the Braves, from an outsider’s perspective looking in, is that they do it the right way and that it’s a first-class organization,” Kelenic said. “You hear all these stories about that. Then you get traded over here and from day one, from the second I got on the phone with anyone that was with the Braves, it kind of says that right away.”

The Braves made a series of transactions that ended with Kelenic joining the team. At the time, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he envisioned a platoon in left field with Kelenic and Vaughn Grissom. That plan changed when Anthopoulos traded Grissom to the Red Sox three weeks later.

Now Kelenic has a chance to hold down the left field job. The other realistic options on the 40-man roster include two older prospects who made their MLB debut in 2023, Forrest Wall and J.P. Martinez. The non-roster outfielders in camp include MLB veterans Jordan Luplow and Eli White.

Kelenic’s 2023 results were better than what those players have managed so far. He hit .253 with a .746 on-base plus slugging percentage. Kelenic posted a 1.3 fWAR. The Braves got 1.7 WAR from their left fielders in 2023.

If Kelenic reaches his potential, then the Braves will get much more from that position in 2024. At some point, potential becomes just another way of saying a player hasn’t done it yet and won’t. The Braves believe Kelenic isn’t there yet.

“He’s a very talented young man,” Snitker said. “Now, it’s just about getting results.”