Braves have difficult options with Marcell Ozuna after arrest

In February 2021, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos expressed tons of excitement about re-signing Marcell Ozuna, which gave his club the big bat it sought that offseason.

“He’s very accountable, responsible, tremendous teammate, very honest and humble,” Anthopoulos said at the time. “Everything you want. Our environment fit him well. We got the best out of him, and he helped the team in so many ways, both on the field and in the (clubhouse).”

Hindsight is, of course, clear as day. But the contract has not unfolded as the Braves anticipated.

Ozuna on Friday was arrested in Gwinnett County on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, Norcross police said. It is Ozuna’s second arrest in 15 months.

Ozuna, 31, was taken into custody on Beaver Ruin Road and booked into the Gwinnett County jail shortly after 4:30 a.m., a Norcross police spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In addition to the charge of “DUI less safe,” he also is facing a charge of failure to maintain lane.

Ozuna was taken into custody by Norcross police early Friday morning and booked into the Gwinnett County Jail, a police spokesman confirmed.

Credit: Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office

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Credit: Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office

According to an incident report obtained by the AJC, Ozuna told the officer who pulled him over that he drank “three or four” beers earlier in the night. Ozuna submitted to a field sobriety test, but was placed under arrest when he refused a breath test, the report said.

“Disappointed my team, disappointed my family,” Ozuna said on Friday. “Don’t have anything more to say. It’s a legal matter.”

Now, the question is this: What will – and what can – the Braves do about Ozuna and his contract? There are intricacies to each avenue the club could take with Ozuna.

But conversations with people around the baseball industry pointed to a certain consensus: The Braves are in a difficult spot.

How much do the Braves still owe Ozuna?

In 2021, Atlanta re-signed Ozuna, the outfielder and designated hitter, to a four-year deal worth $65 million if you include the $1 million buyout for the fifth-year team option.

The Braves still owe Ozuna around $41 million, including for the rest of this season. He is in the second season of the deal, which further complicates matters.

In terms of average annual value, Ozuna is the Braves’ third-highest player this season.

The Braves’ statement, which they released Friday, ended like this: “Our organization takes these matters very seriously and are obviously disappointed by the situation. As this is a legal matter, we will have no further comment until the process is complete.”

Thus, it is reasonable to believe the Braves will not act until the legal process is resolved.

Could Braves void Ozuna’s contract and release him without paying him?

The Braves could designate Ozuna for assignment, but sources agreed on something: The team would almost certainly have to eat whatever is remaining on the contract at the time it released Ozuna because the Braves probably could not void his deal. They also most likely could not recoup any of the money.

Guaranteed contracts are generally difficult for teams to get out of unless players are suspended by the commissioner’s office for violating the Joint Drug Agreement or Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.

Driving under the influence – as a standalone charge – would not typically be grounds to terminate a contract, multiple people said. The situation would be different, one person said, if Ozuna were convicted of a crime and imprisoned for it, leaving him unavailable to serve his contract.

The guarantee language in a contract, which the player must follow for his contract to be valid, can sometimes prevent players from doing dangerous activities that would cause catastrophic injury. But if negotiated well by a player’s representation, that language often wouldn’t allow a team to void a player’s contract for a DUI.

Could the Braves try to release him without paying him or suspend him without paying him? Yes. But the feeling is that this would result in a grievance, pitting Ozuna and the MLB Players Association versus the Braves in front of an independent arbiter.

Ozuna and the team could theoretically settle with an agreement that allows the Braves to recoup some of the money. But because the club, at least from the outside, doesn’t appear to have a cause to terminate his contract, this is seen as unlikely simply because Ozuna could still earn the entirety of his deal.

The Braves' Marcell Ozuna reacts to striking out to end the game in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets during the ninth inning in a MLB baseball game on Monday, July 11, 2022, in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Would the club be able to trade Ozuna?

At the time of his arrest, Ozuna had lost his starting job. He was batting .214 with a .656 OPS. He is limited defensively. He has posted -1.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. But he has 20 homers and a few big hits this season.

All of that would tell you it might be difficult to trade Ozuna. What complicates matters: Ozuna is set to make $18 million in each of the next two seasons before the option year.

Ozuna is a slugger with the ability to change the game with one swing if he is hot.

But because of his unacceptable behavior, on-field struggles and expensive salary, one source said the Braves would have to take on some portion of his contract. Any rival teams would probably low-ball the Braves with their offers because clubs would expect the Braves to be desperate to trade Ozuna.

Ozuna is not starting for the Braves. He is not a good outfielder, which means he is only valuable as a bat. And if he is not hitting, his value drops even more.

To trade Ozuna, the Braves would need to find a way to increase his value before this season ends. That would be difficult considering he has not started in almost a week.

Trading Ozuna is a possibility, but the Braves wouldn’t have much leverage in these talks. Then again, Anthopoulos’ excellent track record speaks for itself, so perhaps the trade would not favor the other team as much as you might assume.

Would the Braves keep Ozuna?

If Ozuna were hitting, the Braves’ decision would be focused on this question: What kind of message does it send to employ someone who has been arrested twice in 15 months and has not shown an ability to stay out of trouble?

But he’s not hitting.

This might simplify matters. The Braves could keep Ozuna, but they might not need him. Whether or not they can trust his behavior going forward is something only they can answer.

The Braves kept Ozuna for this season after he was arrested in connection with a domestic assault at his Sandy Springs home in 2021. He was accused of strangling his wife, Genesis, during an argument and throwing her against a wall before striking her with the cast covering his broken fingers.

Ozuna initially was charged with felony aggravated assault, but the charges later were reduced to battery and simple assault with family-violence enhancements. As a first offender, Ozuna agreed to enter the pretrial diversion program.

Major League Baseball, which last year said it thoroughly investigated Ozuna’s situation, retroactively suspended Ozuna 20 games for violating its Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. Ozuna received the second-lowest number of games in a suspension in the history of the policy, which began in 2015. At the time, a person with knowledge of the situation said another component in the club’s decision to keep Ozuna was that his teammates wanted him to return.

One industry source speculated that part of Anthopoulos’ evaluation of the situation might focus on whether Ozuna would be a positive influence in the clubhouse and stay out of trouble. If the Braves believe both can occur, the situation might be tenable – that is, if the Braves also believe he can help them going forward. They are one of baseball’s best rosters and have been one of its top clubs this season without heavy contributions from Ozuna.

Whatever occurs, it almost certainly will not happen until the legal process is complete. The Braves have given no public indication of what they will do with Ozuna.

Asked on Friday whether Ozuna might face any discipline from the team, manager Brian Snitker said: “I can’t answer that. I’m the wrong guy to ask.”

Snitker also was asked if he thinks Ozuna still deserves a spot on the team.

“I don’t know that I need to answer that either,” Snitker said. “It’s one of the things that I think, as an organization and a team, we’re disappointed, and we’re just going to go on from there. I’m not going to get into that.”