The Braves have their clean-up hitter.
Marcell Ozuna, who tormented the Braves in October in the National League Division Series with St. Louis, signed a one-year, $18 million deal, the team announced Tuesday night. He fills the need for a power hitter in the middle of the lineup.
The signing came exactly one week after Josh Donaldson signed a four-year deal with Minnesota. His departure left an enormous power gap in the middle of the order with spring training approaching. The Braves’ talks with Ozuna picked up over the weekend.
Ozuna, 29, has spent the past two seasons with the Cardinals after spending his early career in the National League East with Miami. Ozuna hit .241 with 29 homers and a .800 OPS last season (130 games).
“We liked our outfield, but we really feel strongly about Ozuna’s bat,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “There’s a lot more upside to what he showed last year. We just thought it was the best fit for us.”
» MARK BRADLEY: Ozuna spruces up Braves’ offense
The right-handed bopper helped the Cardinals win the NL Central and advance to the NL Championship Series, hitting .324 in the postseason. He hit a robust .429 with two homers in the five-game NLDS, where the Cardinals eliminated his new club.
Ozuna has earned two All-Star appearances since his debut in 2013. He’s been a potent bat over that span, hitting 23 or more home runs in each of the past four seasons, including a career-best 37 in 2017. He’s collected 124, 88 and 89 RBIs across the past three seasons, respectively.
Anthopoulos believes Ozuna was the victim of some bad luck last season, and that the upside of his 2017 All-Star campaign, when he hit .312 along with his aforementioned career-high totals.
The slugger possesses an ideal resume for the Braves, who were dealt a blow when Donaldson, and his 37 homers and 94 RBIs, departed for the Twins. Anthopoulos declined comment on Donaldson because Minnesota has not made the signing official.
Ozuna theoretically replaces a bulk of Donaldson’s production while requiring only a single-season commitment. The Braves balked at giving Donaldson a sizable, long-term deal at 34 years old.
Much like Donaldson last winter, Ozuna comes to Atlanta on a one-year agreement seeking to rebuild his value for the next free-agent cycle.
» MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Ozuna can hit, but on the field ...
The deal carries similarities with the Dallas Keuchel signing as well. The Braves waited out Keuchel’s market into June before signing the pitcher to a one-year deal. In this case, no other franchise met Ozuna’s initial demands, allowing the Braves to swoop in and sign him to more team-friendly terms.
“This is a good opportunity for him to play to his potential in this lineup,” Anthopoulos said.
While not a highly regarded defender, Ozuna plugs into left field. That will directly affect Nick Markakis’ and Adam Duvall’s playing time, given the duo was previously slotted to platoon the position. Ronald Acuna was penciled in right, with Ender Inciarte in center.
It further deepens the Braves’ outfield stock while creating a logjam. That rosters have expanded to 26 this season could prove its value in this instance. The Braves could more easily carry five outfielders.
“That’ll be worked out,” said Anthopoulos, who spoke with Inciarte, Markakis and Duvall earlier in the day.
Nonetheless, the Braves are blessed with versatility, giving them plentiful combinations to deploy. But Acuna and Ozuna will be in the lineup on a nearly every-day basis. Both are pivotal pieces of an offense that soared last season but is now tasked with replacing Donaldson.
An added bonus: The Braves aren’t blocking their top outfield prospects, Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. Both players are expected to debut in the majors this season, but neither will be relied upon on the pennant-hopeful Braves. Their presences dissuaded the Braves from pursuing multi-year options in the outfield.
The third base market had dried after Donaldson signed, making an outfielder the most logical means of the team adding pop.
“We weren’t focused on the position, just focused on the player who we thought was the best fit,” Anthopoulos said. “Here, like last offseason, we were looking for a middle of the order bat.”
Barring another addition, Johan Camargo likely will start at third for the Braves, with youngster Austin Riley also in the mix in spring training.
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