Marcell Ozuna finds comfortable fit with the Braves

Back in what passed for spring training, before it was cut weeks short by the coronavirus, the Braves were just a little bit anxious about their new plug-in player for the middle of the lineup.

Had General Manager Alex Anthopoulos swung and missed on this one? Had the knack for importing one-year wonders – see Josh Donaldson the season before – betrayed him?

How could it be that the same Marcell Ozuna who bedeviled the Braves in the preceding postseason was just as troublesome to them now while wearing their uniform?

Ozuna had found the team’s new facility in the wilds of North Port, Fla., all right. But he still appeared lost.

“You’re getting to know guys and who they are and how they work – and he was all out of whack,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer recalled. The swing which the Braves had signed for $18 million for a one-year trial was more of a flail.

Concerned? That would be too strong a word. As a two-time All-Star and a player who averaged 28 home runs per season the past four years with Miami and St. Louis, Ozuna had earned his share of lenience.

A little nervous, maybe, given this first impression. “When you got guys like this, they’ve got baseball cards (a track record),” Seitzer said. “You don’t know how or when they flip the switch, you just hope the switch flips,” Seitzer said.

Perhaps one person at least benefited from the sudden cessation of spring and the more than three-month pause while baseball gathered itself. Because something good happened over that period for Ozuna. The switch flipped.

“When he came back to the second ‘spring’ training he was in a better place,” Seitzer said. “I didn’t expect what I’ve seen so far this season. It’s like when the lights came on, he really showed up. It’s been fun to watch.”

In Ozuna, the Braves thus far have found much of what they had in Donaldson: A credible presence hitting behind Freeman and a positive clubhouse and dugout influence.

A 2018 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on Ozuna hinted at a helpful personality at heart. At the time Ozuna said, “One lesson my dad taught me was to always extend your hand and keep it open for everybody. Always learn the difference between those who want to abuse (your goodwill) and those who are in need. Know how you can help those who need you.”

Growing up in the baseball-crazed Dominican Republic, Ozuna dropped out of high school as a junior. That didn’t stop him from learning English while coming up through the minors, which enables him to reach players residing on both sides of the clubhouse language barrier.

And he has plenty to offer.

“He’s a guy these younger guys look up to,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He doesn’t miss a thing. He’s a guy who watches and pays attention to everything.”

“I like to talk to players about other players and see how their mind works, and (Ozuna’s) got really good feel, really good instincts,” Anthopoulos said. “Just hearing him talk about who he thinks are good teammates and why and how he views the game and his approach – I’ve been really impressed getting to know him. That’s been a nice surprise.”

“Personality-wise, he’s one of the best,” Albies said. “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.”

Describing Ozuna’s swing, Seitzer called it, “extremely compact, probably one of the shortest, most compact swings I’ve seen.”

Quick hands being the key here. “He can let the ball get so deep and the barrel gets to the ball in a blink of the eye. It’s very impressive,” Seitzer said.

And while possessing a 2017 Gold Glove, Ozuna is not likely to be counted on for his defense in left field this season. The Braves clearly got him for his bat.

And that implement is doing the job for which it was hired. Yes, it’s early, but early really matters in a season reduced by nearly two-thirds. Thus far, the Ozuna of summer has quashed any doubts raised by the Ozuna of spring. When autumn comes, we’ll know better the bang Anthopoulos got for his buck on this particular short-term solution.

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