Marcell Ozuna joined his new teammates at Braves camp on Sunday, meeting many of them for the first time. It marked the unofficial beginning to what the player and team hope is a fruitful partnership.
The slugging outfielder, signed to a one-year, $18 million deal last month, possesses an element critical to the team’s success: Power. Lots of power, in fact. A patient, calculated approach by the Braves and a free-agent Ozuna led to Sunday morning’s introduction.
» PHOTOS: Hitters arrive at Braves spring camp
Ozuna had waited all winter for a multi-year offer he deemed viable. The Braves waited all winter to see if they’d retain clean-up hitter Josh Donaldson. In the end, the simultaneous waiting game paired the Braves and Ozuna.
The Braves had their chance to match Donaldson’s highest bid, but they opted against it. Ozuna reportedly had at least one multi-year pitch, but it wasn’t good enough. Ultimately, Donaldson left for the Twins and Ozuna didn’t receive his sufficient long-term offer. So the team and player found each other, hoping the union provides what both seek.
For the Braves, it was about finding a middle-of-the-order bopper behind Freddie Freeman. For Ozuna, he’ll try to rebuild his value on a contender — as Donaldson did a season ago — and re-enter the market primed for the contract that eluded him in the past several months.
“I feel fantastic,” said the soft-spoken Ozuna in his first public comments since signing. “I came in today and I know a few of these guys here from other teams. It feels amazing to play together. I feel happy right now, just (getting to know) my team.”
This is another new start for Ozuna, who spent the first five years of his career with the Marlins and the past two with the Cardinals. He peaked in 2017, when he hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs, earning his second consecutive All-Star appearance.
Ozuna wasn’t as stellar with Cardinals. He hit .263/.327/.452 with 52 homers and 117 RBIs over the past two seasons, including hitting .241/.328/.472 in 2019, when he was coming off offseason shoulder surgery intended to help him rebuild strength. His throwing-arm strength had steadily declined during his time in Miami and first season in St. Louis.
The Braves are optimistic they’ll get the most out of Ozuna defensively, thinking their scheme will make life easier on him in left field. Their defensive positioning, along with Ender Inciarte’s fielding ability in center, can take pressure off Ozuna.
“In our system, defensively, we can help him,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We can make him better. Maximize what he’s got going on. As long as he’s willing to work and do all that, there’s no reason he can’t get back to where he’s been.”
But it’s all about Ozuna’s offense. While his 2019 was viewed as underwhelming by loftier standards, it was still his fourth straight season hitting 23 or more home runs. He’s collected 124, 88 and 89 RBIs in the past three seasons, respectively. One can nitpick his weaknesses, but Ozuna is a proven run producer.
The 29-year-old said his recovery from surgery had no effect on his offensive output last season. The Braves saw just how dangerous a dialed-in Ozuna can be last October, when he hit .429 with three doubles, two homers and five RBIs over the five-game series in which the Cardinals eliminated the Braves.
“I remember when he first came up with the Marlins,” Snitker said. “We always used to talk about (how) he’s one of those guys who hits good pitching. He’s always been an offensive force.”
“There’s a lot more upside to what he showed last year,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said after the signing. “This is a good opportunity for him to play to his potential in this lineup.”
As Ozuna’s new teammates were quick to tell him, the Braves are happy he’s on their side now. He wants to give them a larger sample of what he showed in the NLDS. He believes he can recapture his 2017 efficiency, or “maybe better. You never know.”
For those wondering, Ozuna ditched his signature bushy beard, instead going with a clean-shaven look to start the season. “Every year I shave and come clean,” he said. He will continue wearing his “lucky” neon green sleeve on his right arm. The flashy arm wear matches his vibrant personality on the field.
Like youngsters Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, Ozuna loves displaying his emotions and love for the game. He should complement them well in the lineup, giving the Braves a fearful top four of Acuna, Albies, Freeman and Ozuna. If it unfolds as they envision, the top of the order will be among baseball’s best.
“They’re awesome, especially Freddie, Acuna and Albies,” Ozuna said, while comparing the team’s outfield star power to that of his Miami teams, where he was teammates with MVPs Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. “Those guys are amazing. I’m happy to play with them, together in unity, and we’ll see what happens later.”
And maybe in later days, the Braves and Ozuna will look back fondly on the 2020 season. They’re hoping patience, and persistence in finding the right match pays off.
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