The Braves hated to see Josh Donaldson go, but they know what to expect from the familiar newcomer who’ll fill his integral role in the order.
One week after Donaldson decided to join the Twins, the Braves signed slugging outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year deal. The 29-year-old replaced Donaldson in the clean-up spot, protecting Freddie Freeman and – the team hopes – filling a large chunk of Donaldson’s production.
“He’s that legit guy to bat fourth behind Freddie,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I’ve seen him for a long time. He’s always that guy that I know, talking to guys with the Marlins ever since he came up, that he hits good pitches. He can really swing the bat. I think he’ll be a good fit here.”
Once Donaldson left, the Braves faced a gigantic hole in the middle of their order, one that couldn’t be ignored for a team carrying World Series aspirations. Their patience was met with fortune when Ozuna, who initially wanted a significant multi-year commitment, was forced to settle for a short-term deal.
A proven power commodity, Ozuna launched 52 homers across the past two seasons for the Cardinals. He put on a show in the National League Division Series against his new team, hitting .429 with two homers and five RBIs to propel St. Louis to the NL Championship Series.
Now, Ozuna doesn’t come without question marks. He isn’t a highly regarded defender, though the team believes he isn’t as bad as he’s sometimes graded. He’s underwhelmed, to a degree, since an explosive All-Star season in 2017. His average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage have taken sizable dips since he hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs that season.
The Braves, who can fancy themselves the kings of veteran reclamation projects, feel Ozuna can recapture a semblance of that form. If he does, the offense will remain as potent as last year’s edition. It also would position him well for next winter’s free agency.
Sound familiar? The Braves felt similarly about Donaldson last winter when they inked him to a one-year, $23 million deal. They’ll pay Ozuna $5 million less, but they’re investing their hopes in another All-Star rebound.
The Braves declined the opportunity to match Minnesota’s offer to Donaldson, which guaranteed him four years and $92 million along with a team option tacked on the back. They saw better value in the Ozuna flier, which won’t block outfield prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters and protects the franchise’s flexibility moving forward.
“I reached out to (Donaldson) after he signed,” Snitker said. “I was watching it from afar because I wanted the guy back. I think everybody did. He’s got to go out and do what’s best for him and his family. I wish him nothing but the best because he was a big part of what we did last year and I really appreciate – I didn’t realize the player he was, how good he was. I’m happy for him and how it turned out. I’d have loved to have him back, but he’ll be a great asset to a really, really strong team.”
Donaldson’s ex-teammates praised him during the Braves’ Chop Fest fan event Saturday, expressing excitement over Ozuna while acknowledging disappointment in seeing last season’s third baseman depart. Shortstop Dansby Swanson was among the most honest.
“Anytime you have a great player opt to go somewhere else, I don’t know if disappointing is right word, but it’s sad,” Swanson, whose locker was adjacent to Donaldson’s. “He fit in so well here. …. He was one of my favorite teammates. It’s sad seeing him go, but he made a choice that he believed was best for him. I’m happy for him. I wish him nothing but the best.
“I know he loves hitting in that park. He likes Minnesota. Hopefully we’ll get to play him at some point this year, which would be the World Series.”
That’s where the Braves’ focus now lies: Making a deep playoff run. Ozuna doesn’t need to be Donaldson. He likely won’t be. But he’ll be relied upon to replace a sum of Donaldson’s 37 homers and 94 RBIs. Ozuna, like his clean-up predecessor, is a feared lineup presence.
The Braves aren’t strangers to the vibrant Ozuna, who broke through with the Marlins in 2013. Between last year’s postseason series and his Miami stint, most current Braves have seen their share of Ozuna. Even top prospect Cristian Pache met him in 2015 in the Dominican Republic and is excited to possibly play beside him at some point in the season.
“He’s fun to watch,” third baseman Johan Camargo said. “I love his energy.”
“I was very happy and excited,” outfielder Ronald Acuna said via the Braves’ interpreter. “Obviously I’m proud to have a baseball player of that caliber playing next to us. I feel like the lineup is fortified and strengthened with him in it.”
“I’ve seen it for a long time,” Freeman said. “Unfortunately, he’s been a thorn in our side, especially with the Marlins. He’s a great power hitter, a great fielder. Everyone loves that play he made in St. Louis where he jumped off the fence. That was my favorite. I can’t wait to give him a little bit of a hard time on that one. But he’s a big threat in the middle of our lineup. Our lineup is deep.”
The Braves will need players in the lower half of their lineup to break out, but the top four – Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freeman, Ozuna – appear dangerous. The Braves are returning most players from last season’s historic offensive campaign, with the Donaldson-Ozuna switch the most notable change.
Players are motivated after that dreadful ousting in October. Making matters worse, the Nationals upset the Dodgers later that evening, riding their momentum all the way to a World Series championship.
A team with a record worse than the Braves for six-plus months, a franchise haunted by postseason horrors, had claimed the crown. The Braves’ No. 1 rival assembled one of the more memorable Octobers in recent memory, while the NL East champs could do nothing but watch.
“It’s our turn,” professed an energized and healthy Freeman on Saturday. If it finally is, Ozuna will be a considerable reason why.
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution