Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has a two-year streak of of signing veteran hitters to one-year contracts. There’s usually a reason players like that settle for short-term deals. For third baseman Josh Donaldson it was his age and injury history. For outfielder Marcell Ozuna, it might be his defense.
As a hitter, Ozuna has one great year and two pretty good ones in his past three. Anthopoulos believes Ozuna’s 2017 All-Star season showed his true value as a hitter and that his 2019 campaign was better than the numbers make it appear. If that turns out to be the case, then Ozuna will be a reasonable lineup replacement for Donaldson, whose offensive floor (when healthy) isn’t much lower than Ozuna’s ceiling.
In the field is where Ozuna might be a liability. The advanced statistics are mixed on that point. In 2019 Ozuna rated poorly in those measures that rely on StatCast tracking data, Outs Above Average and Outfielder Jump. Tony Wolfe of FanGraphs writes of Ozuna: “Out of 318 players who played outfield at some point in 2019, just 11 of them did more damage to their teams on an OAA basis than Ozuna.”
Donaldson was a fine fielder for the Braves at a position where it’s important. Defense isn’t as important in left field, which isn’t the same as saying it’s not as important. Those who remember Matt Adams trying to play there for the Braves in 2017 can attest to that.
But there’s a chance that Ozuna’s 2019 defense is an outlier. The metrics rated him as OK in 2018. He was a good left fielder for the Marlins in 2017, when he won a Gold Glove. The Marlins had moved Ozuna to left from center, where the metrics indicate he played respectable defense.
My eye test, based on Ozuna’s recent visits with the Cardinals, is that he has a good arm and athletic ability, but doesn’t get to balls quickly. He’s 29 years old with 931 career games played, so decreased speed shouldn’t be much of a concern. In St. Louis, Ozuna played alongside Harrison Bader, an outstanding center fielder. Now he’ll play with another good one, Ender Inciarte.
Ozuna’s offense is less of a worry. The reason he’s unlikely to match Donaldson’s production is that his career walk rate is below the MLB average (another possible reason for Ozuna’s soft market). Donaldson’s ability to draw a lot of walks is a reason he was valuable for the Braves in 2019 before he started hitting.
But Ozuna always has hit the ball hard. With better luck Ozuna can improve on the.263 hitting and .452 slugging he posted in 1,177 plate appearances over the past two seasons. And his walk rate in 2019 was the highest of his career.
The Braves signed Ozuna for $18 million. Team owner Liberty Media boosted its projected opening-day payroll to about $150 million, which will be a franchise high if it holds. Signing Donaldson would have cost the Braves $3 million more this season plus $63 million over three more seasons.
They balked for reasons that are defensible, but it left the Braves with a lineup that isn’t long enough to be a true World Series contender. I don’t think Ozuna changes that outlook. The betting markets agree. After Ozuna’s signing the odds for the Braves to win the World Series are 12-1, second-best in the National League behind the Dodgers, same as before.
Still, Ozuna is a good signing for Anthopoulos, whose internal lineup options weren’t good. The GM got another good player on a make-good deal. Ozuna is unlikely to produce at the plate as Donaldson did in 2019, but at least there’s a decent chance he can fill that hole. (Ozuna produced a lot more than Donaldson in the 2019 NLDS, but then no Braves regulars outside of Ronald Acuna and Dansby Swanson did much damage in that series.)
As for defense, Ozuna’s fielding isn’t on the same level as Donaldson’s. That might be part of the reason why there was no long-term deal to Ozuna’s liking on the market. At least defense doesn’t matter so much in left field, and Johan Camargo, Donaldson’s projected replacement at third base, is pretty good at the hot corner.
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