What can you expect from Braves’ Marcell Ozuna in 2023?

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Since re-signing with the Braves before the 2021 season, Marcell Ozuna has been arrested twice. On the field, he has underperformed and has not lived up to his big contract. At times, you might have wondered if his days with the Braves were numbered.

But the Braves believe Ozuna – who is owed $37 million through the rest of a four-year contract that guarantees him $65 million total – could have a bounce-back season in 2023.

There are a few reasons why.

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Ozuna finished last season with a .226 batting average and a .687 OPS. But the Braves’ in-house metric for expected OPS – “expected” statistics attempt to remove luck from the equation and account for factors a player can control – had Ozuna around a mid-.700s OPS. Thus, you might be justified in thinking Ozuna’s raw numbers could’ve looked better last season.

Ozuna, who lost playing time in 2022, still blasted 23 homers. In September, he hit .321 with a .953 OPS over 53 at-bats. This final push encouraged the club, which will have Ozuna for at least two more seasons (there’s a club option for 2025), if it doesn’t move him.

The Braves also have looked at how hard he hit the ball. Ozuna’s max exit velocity (113.9 mph) ranked in the top 7% of baseball, according to Baseball Savant. His top-end exit velocity figures still represent a positive. He also posted an above-average hard-hit rate. None of this matters if he doesn’t hit, but these signs suggest that Ozuna might perform better next year.

Plus, Ozuna is 32 years old. If he were 38, for example, perhaps the Braves would be more worried about his dip in production since 2021. But they believe Ozuna still has the talent and ability that made him one of the sport’s more coveted hitters only a few seasons ago.

The Braves would not be surprised if Ozuna bounces back and contributes heavily in 2023. They probably would see it as a return to the norm for a player who underperformed over the past two seasons.

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This also is worth noting: Ozuna is beloved in the clubhouse.

He’s seen as a good teammate, someone who helps anyone in need and imparts his hitting knowledge to younger players. His teammates like being around him daily. And after his arrest in August, Ozuna apologized to his team.

In August, when Ozuna was arrested for the second time in 15 months, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the Braves would cut him. Not only had he experienced multiple off-field lapses, but his on-field performance left a lot to be desired. Following his arrest, fans – even more unforgiving because he was not hitting – loudly booed Ozuna.

But Ozuna is owed $37 million through the rest of his contract. That would be a lot of money for the Braves to eat if they were to release him. With Ozuna’s recent performance, the Braves likely would need to endure the short end of a lopsided trade if they wanted to deal him – which might mean taking on a bad contract or attaching a prospect, for example.

If the Braves believed Ozuna had no value, they would have acted accordingly. But they think he could have more left in him.

It’s difficult for teams to find a player with Ozuna’s raw power. But he must hit. In 2022, his 24.1% strikeout rate became the highest of his career, and his 6.1% walk rate tied for his lowest. He must begin to validate the organization’s belief in him.

Once again, Ozuna likely will be a designated hitter for the Braves. He is a subpar defender in left field, and the Braves should be able to avoid using him a lot there.

Since taking the job with the Braves, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has put together a remarkable track record. The Braves haven’t found themselves severely burned by a trade or signing.

Ozuna seems like Anthopoulos’ lone big miss – for now. The narrative could change if Ozuna reverts to his pre-2021 form in the final two seasons of the deal.

At the General Managers Meetings in Las Vegas earlier this month, one reporter asked Anthopoulos how he would characterize the first two years of Ozuna’s contract, on and off the field.

“I don’t know that I’ve thought about it that way,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve seen what’s happened, right? So it goes without saying. So I don’t know that I need to put a tag on it. The facts are the facts. But I haven’t thought about giving it a title.”

There is still time for Ozuna to begin proving he was worth the money.