In the post-Donaldson world, this was a move the Braves had to make. Had they kept Josh Donaldson, they could have made do – maybe – with an outfield of Ronald Acuna, Ender Inciarte and some combination of Nick Markakis/Adam Duvall/Austin Riley. There’s a good chance Riley will be needed at third base, which, to be fair, is his natural position.
That would have left them with Inciarte, who hasn’t hit much lately and was injured much of last year; Markakis, who’s 36 and who has begun to show his age, and Duvall, a former All-Star with the Reds who spent much of last summer with Gwinnett. That’s about as unimposing as any outfield including the great Acuna can be.
Enter Marcell Ozuna, another the Braves’ one-year buys. They’re paying him $18 million. That’s not an overspend: The going rate for free agents is $7-10 million for 1.0 worth of Baseball-Reference WAR (wins above replacement). Ozuna wasn’t anything special in his two seasons with St. Louis – a 2.2 bWAR in 2018, a 2.1 last year – but he was superb in 2017 as a Marlin (5.1). Also: He won’t turn 30 until November. Also: He’s a right-hander hitter.
Having Ozuna as a regular corner outfielder spruces up the Braves’ lineup to something above industry standards. It doesn’t lift it to the heights it knew last season with Donaldson, but that ship has sailed. (Or sunk, depending on how gloomy you care to get.) The Braves had to have somebody, preferably a right-handed somebody, to hit behind Freddie Freeman. As fate would have it, Ozuna just spent the past season hitting behind Paul Goldschmidt.
You might recall Ozuna being quite good against the Braves in last year’s NLDS. (Or you might not, having cast aside all memory of that squandered series once the Redbirds plated 10 in Inning 1 of Game 5.) He went 9-for-23, scoring six runs and driving in five. He hit two home runs off Dallas Keuchel in the excruciating Game 4. He was better over those five games than he was over the six-month regular season, when he hit .241 and slugged .472.
That regular season was why the Cardinals were willing to let him leave, not that they’re exactly a-brim with stellar outfielders. But, as Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors noted, more advanced analytics were kinder. Wrote Dierkes: “Ozuna’s average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage were both in the 93rd percentile or better this year, suggesting that his current skill level will produce better results.”
If those results aren’t forthcoming, the Braves are committed to nothing beyond the one-time outlay of $18 million. (Besides, Cristian Pache and/or Drew Waters should be ready soon.) This has become the Alex Anthopoulos way -- don’t forget Cole Hamels, signed for one season at $18 million -- over his two-plus years as general manager, and it has its advantages. One-year contracts never hurt much.
The $23 million for Donaldson was money well spent – almost too well spent, given that it enabled him to resurrect his career and then go make it rain in Minnesota. The $13 million for 4-1/2 months of Keuchel was OK, and the $2 million for Brian McCann’s farewell tour wasn’t wasteful. That said, we wonder if it’s possible to sustain a contending team over time by filling key positions with one-year deals. It leaves you dependent on the market, and the market, as we just saw with Donaldson, doesn’t always bend your way.
On the other hand, the Braves have Acuna and Ozzie Albies under long-term contracts, both below market value. That should leave money to spend on an annual basis. But what happens when it’s time to pay Mike Soroka or Max Fried or possibly Dansby Swanson? Will one-year signings still be the currency of the realm in Braves Country?
Enough of that, though. What matters tonight is that the Braves, after suffering a major reversal, just played a deft bit of catch-up ball, and that’s just another reason to have faith in AA the GM. His Plan A for this winter didn’t work. Plan B was named Marcell Ozuna, and he’s now a Brave.
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