For a second straight season, the Braves struck gold on a one-year deal for a middle-of-the-order threat. Atlanta’s 2019 deal with Josh Donaldson proved to be a masterstroke, and although the front office was panned for letting the “Bringer of Rain” walk, GM Alex Anthopoulos’ one-year deal for slugger Marcell Ozuna proved similarly fruitful. The former Marlins and Cardinals slugger delivered a superlative .338/.431/.636 slash and 18 home runs in 267 plate appearances, tacking on three postseason big flies.
The Braves now face a similar dilemma with Ozuna, who’ll draw interest on multi-year deals as one of the best bats in free agency. Unlike Donaldson, Ozuna is ineligible for a qualifying offer, having rejected one last winter. That not only bolsters his free-agent stock but also puts the Braves at risk of receiving no compensation if he departs. In speaking with reporters following the Braves’ NLCS exit, Anthopoulos made clear that re-signing Ozuna is a priority but also spoke with some caution (links via Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Mark Bowman of MLB.com).
“Marcell was amazing for us,” said Anthopoulos. “He was awesome. We’d love to have him back. I certainly plan on having discussions. … We’re going to have to work hard to get as many answers as we can from a revenue standpoint, a DH standpoint, all of those things.”
Anthopoulos sidestepped questions about team budget, noting that he had yet to discuss payroll with ownership and adding, understandably for competitive purposes, that he wouldn’t divulge the result of those talks even if they’d taken place. The GM pointed to uncertainties about 2021 revenue and whether they’ll play a full slate of games with fans in attendance next year as additional factors in determining club payroll, re-signing free agents and exploring other offseason moves.
As for Ozuna himself, the soon-to-be 30-year-old slugger took to social media to offer kind words and gratitude toward the Braves organization, his teammates and the Atlanta fanbase.
“I made the right decision to come play for the Braves,” Ozuna wrote on Instagram. “My time in Atlanta this year brought me so much joy and I will remember this season ALWAYS. None of us know what the future holds, but I know the future is BIG and BRIGHT. Thank you all.”
Specifics of Ozuna’s goals in free agency can’t be known, but his decision to bet on himself last winter could scarcely have gone better. Ozuna reportedly turned down a three-year offer to sign with the Reds, instead opting for a larger one-year salary and the opportunity to return to free agency this winter.
The Braves provided that opportunity, likely due to the upside Ozuna showed in a huge 2017 campaign with the Marlins and his top-of-the-scale ratings in various Statcast measures of interest. In 2019, Ozuna ranked in the 85th percentile or better in terms of barrel rate (85th), average exit velocity (91st), hard-hit rate (96th), expected batting average (89th), expected slugging percentage (90th) and expecte weighted on-base average (91st).
Impressive as that batted-ball profile was, Ozuna’s actual results on the field were relatively pedestrian (.241/.328/.478). That output, combined with defensive questions and the draft-pick compensation attached to his name after rejecting a qualifying offer, tempered interest in Ozuna. That almost certainly won’t be the case this winter, as Ozuna not only delivered elite results at the plate but somehow managed to improve in each of those batted-ball metrics, suggesting that his Herculean season is sustainable.
As Anthopoulos alluded to, teams are still uncertain whether there will be a permanent designated hitter in the National League. That’s critical with regard to Ozuna, who is limited to left field and experienced considerable throwing issues during his time with the Cardinals due to prior shoulder troubles. The Braves utilized Ozuna as their primary DH in 2020 and would surely prefer to do so moving forward.
There’s a widely held belief throughout the industry that even if the NL DH is stricken from the rulebook in 2021, it will be implemented as part of the 2021 collective bargaining talks. As such, the Braves or any other NL club might be willing to bet on using Ozuna in left field for a year and then moving him to DH in 2022 and beyond, but some certainty on that front would surely help his market.
Focusing on the Braves specifically, it’s hard to know whether they’ll buck recent trends under the Anthopoulos regime and take this type of financial plunge. Anthopoulos has eschewed long-term deals for the most part, going beyond two years in just one instance: last year’s three-year, $40MM deal for lefty Will Smith. Outside of that, he’s taken a conservative approach in free agency — even as it comes to big-name targets.
There was ample pressure from fans to bring Craig Kimbrel back on a multi-year deal when his market stalled out, but the Braves opted against it. The same was true of Dallas Keuchel, but the Braves held out until Keuchel could be had on a midseason, one-year deal. Donaldson, Ozuna and Cole Hamels represent other big-name, high-priced one-year deals. Since Anthopoulos took the reins, the Braves haven’t done beyond Smith’s $13.33MM annual salary on a multi-year deal for any free agent.
Signing Ozuna this winter would necessitate a departure from that stance. While no one can be certain how this year’s market will shake out thanks to those revenue losses, the expectation is that the top stars will still be paid. Ozuna should seemingly command at least a four-year deal — possibly a five-year pact — at a base rate in line with or more likely exceeding his current $18MM salary.
There’s certainly space on the payroll to make that plunge, thanks in no small part to overwhelmingly team-friendly deals for Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. That said, this decision will not only come against the backdrop of revenue losses but also the need to hammer out an extension for franchise icon Freddie Freeman, whose eight-year deal expires at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Add in what should be a competitive market for Ozuna’s services, and a reunion is far from a sure thing. The outcome can’t be known at this point, but Ozuna’s situation already bears a striking resemblance to last year’s Donaldson saga.