Braves paying the price for committing long-term to Marcell Ozuna

050622 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna reacts as he leaves the field as the Braves’ lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 at Truist Park on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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

Combined ShapeCaption
050622 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna reacts as he leaves the field as the Braves’ lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 at Truist Park on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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

Josh Donaldson was great for the Braves as a short-term rental in 2019. He produced big numbers as a hitter, was sharp at third base and energized the clubhouse with his amiable cockiness. General manager Alex Anthopoulos decided that, as a long-term investment, Donaldson was too risky. The Braves aren’t in the habit of give contracts of multiple years to older players.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Braves

Donaldson signed for big money with the Twins. To replace his bat in the lineup, Anthopoulos signed Marcell Ozuna. He also was great as a short-term rental, except it turned out he wasn’t that. Anthopoulos signed Ozuna to a four-year, $65 million contract in February 2021, with a team option to pick up a fifth year.

There’s a near-zero chance that $16 million option will be exercised when the time comes. The Braves probably wish they could get out from under what’s left of Ozuna’s $16 million salary this season and the $32 million due over the next two. Anthopoulos made an exception to his usual practice by signing Ozuna to that contract. All signs indicate it’s going to cost the Braves for a while.

Ozuna has played in 92 of 207 possible games since the start of last season (all statistics are before games this weekend). He’s hit .222 with a .280 on-base percentage over that time with a minus-0.5 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. Ozuna has more strikeouts (88) than hits (80) during that span. His .657 on-base plus since the start of 2021 would be sixth-worst in the majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

There’s no sign of a turnaround for Ozuna. This season he’s hitting .231. Only 54 major leaguers are doing worse. Ozuna’s .270 on-base percentage is better than just 19 players. Ozuna is not hitting the ball nearly as hard as he did two seasons ago, he’s swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone and he’s walking less often. There’s no silver lining in sight for Ozuna.

Ozuna’s 2020 season is looking like a 60-game outlier rather than a sign of his resurgence. That was the risk when Anthopoulos signed Ozuna to a long-term deal. Ozuna had been an All-Star with the Marlins, solid with the Cardinals and then great with the Braves. Anthopoulos re-signed Ozuna based on the premise that he’d produce like he did for Miami and the Braves. Instead, Ozuna now is one of the worst everyday players in MLB.

During 2020 spring training, Ozuna said he hoped to stick with the Braves for longer than one season. That seemed unlikely. The Braves were stacked with good, young talent in the outfield. Ronald Acuna was the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year and a 2019 All-Star. The top prospects in the organization then were outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. All three were better fielders than Ozuna.

Ozuna’s big season in 2020 meant he was going to get a long-term deal in free agency. It didn’t seem as if the Braves would be the team to pay. They declined to do it with Donaldson. He signed with the Twins for $92 million over four years. Donaldson wasn’t nearly as good for Minnesota as he was with the Braves. The Twins traded Donaldson to the Yankees in March and he’s been pretty good this season.

Ozuna was 30 years old after the 2000 season, not 33 like Donaldson was after his Braves’ tenure. The designated hitter was coming to the NL soon. That would mean the Braves could get Ozuna’s bat in the lineup while keeping him out out the field. But Ozuna still didn’t seem to be the veteran that Anthopoulos would commit future years to sign. The decision to do so immediately went south for Anthopoulos.

Ozuna was struggling to produce when he went on the injured list in May 2021. Soon after that he was arrested on allegations of domestic violence. Later, MLB placed him on administrative leave while it investigated. The league retroactively suspended Ozuna for 20 games, but he avoided further discipline. That seemed to be a break for the Braves, but Ozuna has become a big drag on the lineup.

Spending on free agents can be very inefficient. Anthopoulos usually limits the risk by sticking to short-term deals. That’s a prudent approach for a GM who will never be able to spend Dodgers or Mets money and who inherited a strong farm system. Before Ozuna, the strategy worked for Anthopoulos.

Anthopoulos signed left-hander Dallas Keuchel during the 2019 season. Keuchel went on to compile the second-best ERA among Braves starters. Donaldson led the Braves in WAR during the 2019 season. Anthopoulos signed right-hander Charlie Morton to a one-year extension in September. Morton hasn’t been as good this season as he was in 2021. If he doesn’t turn things around, then at least the Braves won’t have to pay him beyond this season.

Ozuna’s contract is a blunder that won’t be so easy to undo. Now the question is whether Ozuna’s salary will become dead weight for a payroll that can’t afford much of it.

Among Braves players, only Morton ($20 million) is making more than Ozuna ($16 million) this season. Ozuna’s $16 million salary for 2023 is third-highest for Braves players under contract behind Matt Olson ($21 million) and Acuna ($17 million). If Ozuna can’t start producing then the options are bench him and essentially eat his salary, designate him for assignment and eat his salary or trade him while (likely) eating a lot of his salary.

I’ll never say a player can’t be traded. I learned that lesson in the summer of 2012 when ex-Hawks general manager unloaded Joe Johnson’s onerous contract. But it’s hard to see Ozuna having much value on the market. Ozuna is 31 with one really good season back in 2017 and has a domestic-violence arrest on his ledger. The Braves are pretty much stuck hoping that Ozuna somehow becomes at least a solid major leaguer again.

Every GM makes mistakes. Anthopoulos hasn’t made many big errors while engineering several shrewd moves. Signing Donaldson to a one-year deal was one of them. Replacing him with Ozuna on a similar deal was another. Then Anthopoulos broke the pattern of short-term deals to re-sign Ozuna. That mistake is still costing the Braves.