Ozuna says mind clear, arm strong, and critical Braves fans ignored

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

NORTH PORT, Fla. - Internally, the Braves are optimistic that Marcell Ozuna can at least be an adequate major league player again. There is some empirical evidence to support that belief but, even if it’s just wishful thinking, what else can the Braves do but hope for the best?

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They already paid Ozuna $28 million to produce at a sub-major league level the past two seasons. The Braves already took a reputational hit for keeping Ozuna on the roster after his MLB suspension for violating the domestic violence policy in 2021 and his DUI arrest last year. At this point the Braves might as well stick with Ozuna and see if he can still help them win games.

Ozuna reported for spring training on Monday and said he’s ready to do it.

“My whole career, I know what I can do in baseball,” Ozuna said. “I have to have my mind clear and come in ready every day to give (my) best.”

Ozuna is right about his career. He was a two-time All-Star for the Marlins. He was a solid player for the Cardinals, too. The Braves signed Ozuna to a one-year, show-me deal in 2021 and he nearly won the NL batting Triple Crown. That season was just 60 games long but, considering Ozuna’s past performance, it seemed as if he was becoming a star again.

Ozuna hasn’t been close to the same player since then. What happened?

Said Ozuna: “This game, I know it is not easy. It is just working, working every day and then when the season (comes), you rest because (if) you are working hard (during the offseason) then the season is going to be easy. If you are not working and you don’t do what you need to do, you are going to be down. So that’s what happened the last couple years.”

That’s not what you want to hear from a guy who signed a four-year, $65 million contract to be a premier lineup piece. At least Ozuna is honest about it. There’s nothing Ozuna or the Braves can do about his two seasons of poor play. What matters now is whether Ozuna can at least be an effective designated hitter in 2023.

Ozuna said he had his eye on doing more than that while training and playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic during the offseason.

“Getting healthy and (doing) recovery of my arm so for this year I can play a little bit in the outfield,” Ozuna said. “We’ll see what happens.”

That was surprising to hear because no one else is talking about Ozuna playing in the outfield. He provided 420 innings of bad defense in left field last season. Base runners were eager to advance when Ozuna collected the ball. His arm strength was in the 15th percentile of major leaguers last season, according to Statcast tracking data.

Ozuna said he’s dealt with inflammation in his throwing arm over the past couple of seasons. But his arm strength was also poor in the years before that. Ozuna had shoulder surgery in 2018. Some of the strength seemed to return in 2020 but it didn’t last. Ozuna said the arm feels “fantastic” now and soon everyone will get to see for themselves.

Anyway, the Braves don’t necessarily need Ozuna to play much in left field. Eddie Rosario is the frontrunner for to man the position this season and there are at least four other candidates in camp. Ozuna can help the Braves by producing at the plate. There’s some chances of that happening are better than his poor numbers make it seem.

Ozuna hit the ball hard in 2022. His expected Weighted On-Base Average based on exit velocity was .337 in 2022, per FanGraphs. That would be above average. Ozuna’s actual wOBA was .294. That was worse than all but 18 players with at least 500 plate appearances. It’s possible that Ozuna will get luckier outcomes if he keeps hitting the ball hard.

Even if that happens, Ozuna still will need better plate discipline to be consistent. Few MLB hitters chased more pitches outside of the zone and struck out more often in 2022. Ozuna’s 23 home runs didn’t come close to making up for all the other times he didn’t get on base. Only 21 MLB players with at least 500 plate appearances had a worse on-base percentage than Ozuna’s .278.

The low point came in the postseason. Ozuna was 0-for-8 with four strikeouts against the Phillies in the National League Division Series. He struck out three times in Game 3 as Philadelphia fans taunted him with “DUI” chants. That’s expected from a hostile road crowd, but some Braves backers also aren’t fans of Ozuna.

It’s nice to believe that Ozuna’s performance doesn’t factor into that, but we all know that it does. More fans will cut him a break if he produces. I believe the Braves should have already released Ozuna, but then I’m not on the hook to pay him $36 million more. It’s nice to believe that’s not a factor in why Ozuna is still around, but we all know that it is.

Ozuna said he’s ready to begin a new chapter with the Braves.

“Giving my best to my team and my fans,” he said. “I know in my mind that I still have fans, they love me and the other ones, ignore. Don’t worry about them.”

It seems to me that it would be hard to tune out the public ridicule. Ozuna said that’s not the case for him.

“People criticize your life, you don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “You just have to come in ready, strong mentally and give your best.”

Ozuna says that’s what he aims to do in 2023. The Braves are optimistic that will be the case. They don’t have much choice but to believe it so long as Ozuna is on the roster.