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.