With better luck, Marcell Ozuna will be bargain for Braves

Here are five quick things to know about Marcell Ozuna.

Blaming bad luck for poor performance in sports can be a weak excuse. But sometimes it’s a legitimate explanation for good work that goes unrewarded.

I’m putting new Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna in the second category.

Ozuna didn’t produce for the Cardinals the past two seasons like he did for the Marlins in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a worse hitter. The results weren’t up to Ozuna’s standards, but he frequently hit the ball hard and in the air.

What else could Ozuna do? Baseball doesn’t always give players the outcomes they deserve.

“It was bad luck,” Ozuna said Monday before the Braves’ Grapefruit League game against the Phillies. “I was hurt, too. Everything was going well before I got hurt. After I was hurt, I saw everything going down, but then I finished (strong).”

You may recall that Ozuna beat up the Braves in his first postseason series of his career. Ozuna smashed five extra-base hits to help the Cardinals past the Braves in the NLDS.

He hit two solo homers off Dallas Keuchel in the 5-4 victory in Game 4. Ozuna’s RBI single started the 10-run nightmare for the Braves in the first inning of Game 5.

The Cardinals decided not to offer Ozuna a long-term contract after the season. He’d been solid over two years as their clean-up hitter (fractured fingers cost Ozuna 28 games in 2019). The Cardinals placed a higher value on the draft pick they’d be owed if Ozuna rejected the qualifying offer and signed elsewhere. That’s how it played out when the Braves signed Ozuna for one year and $18 million.

Ozuna told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he would have signed the qualifying offer with St. Louis if he'd known he wouldn't get a long-term deal. Those comments seemed to cause a stir among some Braves backers. I don't see the problem. It makes sense that Ozuna would prefer to stay put where he was comfortable rather than become a one-year rental elsewhere.

For the record, Ozuna said he likes the fit so far with the Braves.

“Right now, it is comfortable with them, and they are comfortable with me,” he said. “The most that we need is respect. They respect me and I respect them and that’s a clear part to being a good team this year.”

I believe the starting rotation is the biggest question mark for the Braves in 2020. A close second is how much of the lineup hole left by Josh Donaldson’s departure can be filled by Ozuna. If Ozuna can hit like he did in his best year it would look something like what Donaldson gave the Braves in 2019, which was a lot.

In 2017 with the Marlins, Ozuna set career highs for batting average (.312), home runs (37), on-base percentage (.376), doubles (30) and RBIs (124). The awards piled up: All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove. Only Giancarlo Stanton was a better hitter for the Marlins that season.

The Marlins, as is their custom with star players in their primes, traded Ozuna for prospects after that season. (Another Miami custom: one of those prospects, right-hander Sandy Alcantara, already is an All-Star). Ozuna couldn’t duplicate his Marlins production with the Cardinals: .263 batting over two seasons with a .327 OBP and totals of 52 home runs, 39 doubles and 177 RBIs.

But look closer at Ozuna’s two Cardinals seasons and you see a lot of similarities to his final one with the Marlins. His rate of extra-base hits in 2019 was about the same as it was in 2017. Ozuna struck out less and hit fewer ground balls in each of the past two seasons. Ozuna’s walk rate was higher in 2019 than in 2017.

Ozuna didn’t suddenly start swinging wildly or hitting the ball softly the past two seasons. When he made contact, he hit the ball hard. The difference was dramatically worse results on balls in play in 2019. There was a mismatch between how hard Ozuna hit the ball and the outcomes. Consider that Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman had the most similar batted ball profile to Ozuna in 2019, according to StatCast data.

Ozuna should keep hitting the ball hard this year. He’s always done that. If better results follow, then the Braves again can flex a deep lineup with pop through the middle.

“A little bit of bad luck (last season), but I don’t worry about that,” Ozuna said. “It’s in the past already. I was having bad luck in the regular season so when we made the playoffs, then I showed up like what I feel now.”

There are good reasons to believe Ozuna will produce more for the Braves than he did with the Cardinals. Maybe he won’t hit like Donaldson, but enough that the Braves will again be one of the better offensive teams in the NL. Donaldson made good on his one-year Braves deal and cashed in with the Twins. Ozuna can do the same this year.

Ozuna said he believes it’s possible the union with the Braves could last for more than just this season. He’s open to signing a long-term deal rather than try free agency again next winter, when draft-pick compensation won’t be necessary to sign him.

“You have to do some good work and show them that you are motivated to keep doing,” he said.

It’s hard to see a long-term future for Ozuna in the Braves outfield. MVP candidate Ronald Acuna is a permanent fixture out there and the organization’s top two prospects are outfielders. A big year for Ozuna likely would make his long-term price tag too steep for the Braves, same as Donaldson.

That would be the only unlucky outcome for the Braves if Ozuna has better luck hitting in 2020.

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