The popularly discussed Marcell Ozuna situation, like most of MLB, remains at a standstill. The Braves’ free-agent slugger remains available, and while a reunion makes as much sense now as it did two months ago, it’s still as complicated.
MLB teams (still) don’t know whether there will be a universal DH in 2021 – that depends on an agreement between the league and players association – but they’ve been told to prepare for traditional rules. Complicating matters further: The universal DH is expected to be implemented as part of the coming new CBA, so 2021 likely would be the final season of pitchers hitting in the National League.
Because of those uncertainties, teams such as the Braves are in a tough place. Ozuna thrived as a DH last season; he’s less appealing if he needs to play the outfield every day. The Braves would also need to determine the value in paying a near full-time DH and whether they’d prefer to rotate the position. There are more questions than answers, and roster construction has never appeared more complicated.
Nonetheless, if the Braves don’t retain Ozuna, here are five available players (of a much longer list) who could help the offense:
1. Third baseman Kris Bryant, Cubs
It’s been popular to pair Bryant with a National League East team, including the Braves, Phillies and Nationals. After trading starter Yu Darvish, the Cubs appear willing to move their veterans. Bryant, who’s a year away from free agency, is their top trade candidate.
The 2016 MVP played in only 34 of 60 possible games last season, hitting a disappointing .206/.293/.351, with four homers and 11 RBIs. While he hasn’t replicated his MVP-level production, in the three seasons from 2017-19, Bryant hit .284/.390/.511. He hit at least 29 homers and had at least 73 RBIs in two of the three years (he played 102 games in the season he didn’t achieve those totals).
Coming off a down season, the Braves could acquire Bryant and hope he rehabilitates his value, just as Josh Donaldson and Ozuna did during the past two seasons. If Bryant produces, he’ll be competing for a championship and his value would spike entering free agency next winter. The Braves would bolster their lineup and keep their flexibility after executing their one-year slugger plan successfully yet again. That’s a win-win.
Bryant, 29, can play third base and left field, like Austin Riley, whose versatility is another factor in the team’s slugger hunt. He also could log plenty of time at DH, should that be an option. So fitting him into the lineup won’t be difficult. Meeting the Cubs’ requested return, however, might not be so easy.
2. Outfielder Michael Brantley, free agent
MLB Trade Rumors pegged Brantley to the Braves on a two-year, $28 million deal in its annual offseason predictions. Brantley, 33, would be a short-term addition who retains the Braves’ coveted flexibility.
Brantley hit .309/.370/.497 for the Astros over the past two seasons. He spent 26 games last season as a DH and manned left field in 19 games. He won’t replenish the Braves’ power – Brantley has exceeded the 20-homer mark only twice in his career, though he hit a career-best 22 in 2019 – but he checks the other boxes.
The Braves have Ronald Acuna and Cristian Pache set in the long-term outfield. Prospect Drew Waters also is on the horizon. It makes sense, DH or not, that the team wants to keep its options open in left field. Brantley would address an immediate hole while allowing the Braves to re-assess their outfield mix in a year or two.
3. Outfielder Adam Duvall, free agent
A reunion with Duvall, who was non-tendered in December, is possible. The Braves let him go largely because of the uncertainty surrounding the universal DH (he also was projected to make $4.4 million to $7.1 million in arbitration). Duvall won’t be Plan A or Plan B, but coming off a breakout season with the team, it wouldn’t be surprising if both sides circled back to each other.
Since joining the Braves at the 2018 trade deadline, Duvall spent much of his time in Triple-A, playing in only 74 games with the team entering 2020. He exploded onto the scene in 2020, hitting .237/.301/.523, with 16 homers and 33 homers in 57 games. He became the first Brave with two three-homer games, and he did so within an eight-day span.
Duvall, a solid defender, will fit regardless of the situation. He provides needed power at a modest price and is beloved by manager Brian Snitker and his teammates. He might find a bigger role and/or more money elsewhere, but he’s a player to watch.
4. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, Reds
In December, MLB insider Jon Heyman reported the Nationals and Reds discussed a Suarez trade. Cincinnati, after accelerating its rebuild and making the postseason last season, seems to be headed the other way again. Suarez would net them a handsome return despite an underwhelming 2020 — and there’s justification for the Braves to be the ones making that move.
Suarez, 29, hit .202/.312/.470 with 15 homers and 38 RBIs in the shortened season. Across the two previous seasons, however, he hit .277/.362/.550 with 83 homers and 207 RBIs. Suarez is signed through 2025 with a $15 million team option for 2026. He’ll make $10.5 million in the coming season and $11 million in each of the next three.
As with Bryant, acquiring Suarez would shift Riley to the outfield more regularly. But Suarez is a legitimate power bat signed at a reasonable price. When there’s a universal DH, be it 2021 or 2022, he’d fit that role at a lesser cost than Ozuna as well. The Braves have Freddie Freeman’s extension looming, plus eventual extensions for some of their other younger players, so adding Suarez at that annual price makes sense.
5. Third baseman Justin Turner, free agent
This is an unlikely, though not impossible scenario. Turner, a southern California native, would certainly prefer to stay with the Dodgers, for whom he’s starred for seven seasons. But the 36-year-old is reportedly seeking a four-year deal, according to the Los Angeles Times, and that might push the Dodgers in another direction.
If the Dodgers pivot elsewhere, and eventually Turner’s demands lessen, perhaps he lands in Atlanta and reunites with general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was with the Dodgers’ front office in the two years prior to taking over the Braves. Like Brantley, Turner would be a short-term fix. If there’s a DH, that’d allow the Braves to better manage Turner, plugging him at DH and letting Riley handle third. It would also deal a blow to the Braves’ budding West Coast rivals: Turner hit .307/.400/.460 with four homers and 23 RBIs last season and performed well in the playoffs. He’s been a significant part of the Dodgers’ rise to prominence over the past decade.
Remember: Ozuna was seeking a multi-year deal around this time last winter, and as his suitors dropped out, the Braves swooped in and added him on a one-year contract. A similar scenario could play out again, be it with Turner or another free agent.