The Braves and Marcell Ozuna: A perfect fit hindered by an imperfect situation

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Alex Anthopoulos discusses potential issues assessing free agents for 2021 and possibility of bringing back slugger Marcell Ozuna.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

When Braves newcomer Marcell Ozuna reported to spring training in February, he had two unopened Macy’s cardboard boxes waiting at his locker.

The boxes, as it turned out, contained around 20 bottles of cologne. Ozuna organized them on the top cubby of his locker. Later, after Ozuna held the first media briefing of his Braves career, Channel 2 Action News sports director Zach Klein and yours truly were chuckling about the fragrances. Klein asked Ozuna the obvious question: Why?

“I like to smell fresh,” the slugging outfielder responded.

Ten months later, the man of many aromas — fresh off one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history — sits at the center of the Braves’ offseason.

By now, you probably know the situation: Ozuna, 30, slashed .338/.431/.636 and led the National League with 18 homers and 56 RBIs across the 60-game season. The Braves won their third consecutive division title and came within 12 outs of the NL pennant thanks largely to his production.

Now a free agent, Ozuna is eyeing a multi-year deal. The Braves, whose affinity for short-term flings can be bested only by a 25-year-old bachelor, have several factors to weigh before making such commitment. Their financial situation — which is muddied by the coronavirus fallout and Freddie Freeman’s looming extension — and uncertainty surrounding the universal DH influence the decision.

We still don’t know whether there will be a universal DH next season. NL teams are operating under the assumption that pitchers will be hitting. It greatly affects free agents such as Ozuna, a defensively challenged player who thrived in a primary DH role last season.

If there isn’t a universal DH in 2021, the expectation remains that it will be implemented in the new collective bargaining agreement following next season. But the concern centers first on 2021. If the Braves re-sign Ozuna, and the universal DH is postponed, they’ll have to stick him in left field for a full season before transitioning him back to DH.

Despite his defensive limitations and resounding success in a hitter-only role, Ozuna apparently doesn’t see himself as only a DH, according to analyst Eduardo Perez, who shared the insight during his show “The Leadoff Spot” on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio.

“I had a conversation with (Ozuna) a few weeks ago, he told me, ‘Eddie, I don’t consider myself a designated hitter. That’s the position I played and they put me in the most in Atlanta, and I had success,’” Perez said. “Being a DH myself, from having that experience in 2006 with the Seattle Mariners, I hated it. It’s a very difficult position to be able to separate one at-bat to the other. When you can find a guy who knows how to do it, who can have an 0-for-2 and give you a competitive at-bat in the third or fourth at-bat, and separate those, those are the guys you have to keep around. Those are the guys you keep in that spot.

“Yeah, Marcell Ozuna did not have the greatest arm. It was hurt (Ozuna had right-shoulder surgery following the 2018 season). He told me, ‘Look, my arm is a lot better. But I don’t have to have a great arm in left field. What I have to do is be able to charge the ball well, get better jumps. Now, I understand that.’ And I think if you put him in the right position, and you stay on him, I think Marcell Ozuna — who already won a Gold Glove a few years ago — could play an adequate outfield if it’s maybe for a year.

“If you’re an organization, you take a gamble, saying maybe next year there won’t be a DH, but after the collective bargaining agreement, there could be a DH. Now you sign him to a four-, five-, six-year deal, and you have yourself an outfielder that you already know can transition into a DH if you need him in the next couple years. But Marcell Ozuna sees himself right now as an outfielder that, oh by the way, can DH if you need it and he will produce as a DH.”

Here’s what we learned about Ozuna during the 60-game season:

⋅ Ozuna played 21 games in the outfield (162 innings). It was a small sample size, but the metrics graded him negatively, which was expected. The eye test wasn’t favorable, either. The Braves eventually stuck him at DH full time.

⋅ Ozuna was vastly more productive as a DH. He hit .275/.359/.493 with three homers and 13 RBIs in 19 games as a left fielder (he went 4-for-10 in two games as a right fielder). In the larger sample of 39 games as the DH, Ozuna hit .362/.464/.691 with 14 homers and 40 RBIs.

⋅ While his production from the third spot in the lineup increased, he proved an asset hitting third or fourth. Ozuna hit .375 with nine homers and 30 RBIs across 24 games hitting third, which came when the Braves moved NL MVP Freddie Freeman to the No. 2 spot. Ozuna hit .311 with nine homers and 26 RBIs hitting cleanup in 36 games.

⋅ When the stretch run arrived, so did Ozuna’s finest performance. In September (26 games), he hit .394/.488/.750 with seven doubles, 10 homers and 33 RBIs. Each number drastically outpaced his 26-game showing in August.

⋅ There weren’t fans to cheer him, but Ozuna looked right at home playing in Truist Park. The numbers: .364/.470/.636 with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 30 games.

⋅ Clutch hitting: Ozuna hit .364/.444/.623 with five doubles, five homers and 40 RBIs with runners in scoring position (90 plate appearances). He hit .324/.425/.441 with a double, homer and 17 RBIs in such situations with two outs (40 plate appearances). Ozuna also went 10-for-31 (.323) with two doubles, two homers and nine RBIs in late-and-close-game situations.

⋅ Ozuna overachieved to an extent. His .391 BABIP was much higher than his .319 career number (which was lowered by a .257 BABIP in 2019). His .338 batting average outpaced his expected batting average (.315). Even if he can’t replicate his 2020 numbers - which would be difficult for nearly any player to do - other indicators suggest he can maintain elite offensive production.

Atlanta Braves' Marcell Ozuna is congratulated by third base coach Ron Washington after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Atlanta Braves' Marcell Ozuna is congratulated by third base coach Ron Washington after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Credit: Mary Schwalm

Credit: Mary Schwalm

⋅ For one, Ozuna crushes the ball. His exit velocity averaged 93 mph, which was a career best and ranked 12th in the majors. He hit 92 balls at 95 mph or greater, the sixth-highest total. His hard-hit percentage (54.4) was ninth in MLB yet third on his own team behind catcher Travis d’Arnaud (57.8 percent, second) and outfielder Ronald Acuna (57 percent, fourth). His launch angle, barrel percentage and sweet-spot percentage trended in the right direction. There was virtually no difference between his slugging percentage (.636) and expected slugging percentage (.638).

⋅ Ozuna hit .255/.283/.490 with three doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs during the Braves’ 12-game postseason run. Considering the pitchers the Braves faced, and that Ozuna had several moments, including his late homer in the wild-card win against the Reds and two-homer Game 4 against the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. Even before signing him, the Braves saw Ozuna dominate in October firsthand when he helped the Cardinals eliminate his future club in the 2019 NL Division Series. You feel comfortable that Ozuna won’t wilt under the playoff lights.

⋅ After his three-homer game against the Red Sox in early September, Ozuna said he used the three-and-a-half-month break to get himself into better shape. He said his family helped in pushing him and reminding him to work out. He returned to summer camp feeling much better than he did during spring training, when he went just 2-for-24 before the shutdown.

⋅ The slugger fit perfectly into the clubhouse. In August, before the postseason’s flurry of celebratory selfies, second baseman Ozzie Albies said: “Personality-wise, (Ozuna) is one of the best. He’s funny, he brings joy to the team. Marcell is a guy like Acuna, Dansby (Swanson), Freddie. They’re always positive, always trying to do best they can for the team. That’s Marcell.”

⋅ Ozuna’s baseball knowledge is unquestionable. Teammates constantly praised his IQ, approach and willingness to help them. In late August, d’Arnaud acknowledged he was first surprised by Ozuna’s patient plate appearances.

“His approach is so advanced; a lot more advanced than I initially thought just calling a game against him,” d’Arnaud said. “He hits the ball so hard. He has power to all fields. He can hit homers, doubles to center, left, right. He puts together great at-bats, especially with runners in scoring position. He’s been a tremendous help to me as well. He’s answered any question I’ve had on approach or anything. He’s been a great teammate.”

To round it up: Ozuna’s offensive production makes him one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. That should not change, even if he doesn’t match 2020′s pace. We can comfortably say that Ozuna hasn’t been a good fielder in recent seasons. It’s a deficiency a team accepts when signing him. The Braves even accepted that flaw last winter, signing him to play left field before the world flipped upside down, but there’s a significant difference between a one-year and, say, four-year commitment.

We nitpick players — rightfully so when millions are on the line — but Ozuna proved an ideal fit for the organization. There is a lot of value in knowing what you have, especially when you’re in your winning window of opportunity. Now, perhaps the bidding gets out of control or, like Josh Donaldson a year ago, the Braves aren’t willing to go a certain number of years.

But as far as the DH goes, if the Braves believe in the player, it might be worth one year of outfield tolerance. Even if the Braves have enough faith in Ozuna to offer him a four- or five-year contract, do they have enough faith in him to handle the outfield for a 162-game campaign?

If MLB and the MLBPA can reach an agreement on the universal DH, the whole conversation is moot. That’s the optimal outcome for everybody involved. So to MLB and the Players Association: Please, get this resolved. Otherwise, it could be a while until we find out where Ozuna is having his cologne delivered next spring.

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