With Josh Donaldson’s departure to Minnesota, the Braves are now left with question marks at both third base and left-field. The Braves need a player who can fill one of those two positions and take over the clean-up spot in the line-up. Alex Anthopoulos has the money to spend but, who are the top free-agent options left?
Ozuna, who spent the last two seasons in St. Louis, is the top free agent available. With Acuna moving to right field in 2020, the left-field platoon of Duvall and Markakis is very replaceable. This platoon has potential to work but Ozuna would be an upgrade in the Braves outfield. Ozuna, while only hitting .242, improved both his walk rate and his slugging percentage this past season. He also continues to crush the ball while he refines his approach. According to Baseball Savant, Ozuna ranked in the 96th percentile for hard hit percentile and 93rd percentile for exit velocity in Major League Baseball. Ozuna killed the Braves in the postseason, as he posted a 1.335 in the NLDS. He showed that he could still be elite and left a stinging image of that in the minds of Braves fans.
Projections have Ozuna to hit thirty-three home runs, twenty-seven doubles, and walk sixty-two times for an OPS that will fall at .848. He would slot right into the clean-up spot for the Braves and make a top-four of Acuna, Albies, Freeman, and Ozuna one of the scariest in the league.
Castellanos is the best hitter out of the Braves’ top free-agent options. In 2019, he hit fifty-eight doubles, the second-most of any player in a single season since the expansion era began, and twenty-seven home runs. He flew under-the-radar for most of last season because he was in Detroit. Once he was dealt to Chicago, Castellanos began to gain the media attention he deserved. In a Cubs uniform, he had an OPS of 1.002 with thirty-seven extra-base hits in fifty-one games. Castellanos’ defense, on the other hand, is beyond awful. He has bounced around from third base to the corner outfield spots over the past three years. Castellanos had a -12.6 DEF rating, to go along with negative nine defensive runs saved in left field this past season. This is not a one-year fluke either, as he has -136 DRS and a career DEF rating of -62.6.
The signing of Castellanos would allow the Braves to move Austin Riley back to his primary position of third base. Castellanos is an enormous upgrade over Markakis/Duvall offensively, but the defense is very suspect. If Atlanta can deal with the poor defense, then they could gain one of the most underrated hitters in the entire league.
Yasiel Puig is another corner outfielder who is still a free agent. While Puig’s bat has declined over the past couple of years, he still has the talent to bounce back. He had an OPS of .800 with twenty-four home runs in 2019 but he only walked forty-four times. Puig is still the free swinger that he has always been, but he is not doing the damage he did earlier in his career. This past season, Puig posted his lowest slugging percentage since 2016 to go along with his highest strikeout rate since his rookie season. Puig had a 38.5% whiff rate on and a 24.2% strikeout rate on off-speed pitches. If Puig can improve his approach at the plate, we could see much-needed improvement. The silver lining with Puig is that he posted his highest BABIP since 2014.
Puig had a down season last year, but he is a good buy-low candidate. He was traded to the Reds in the off-season then to the Indians at the deadline. Moving around like that can really affect a player’s performance. Providing Puig with a more stable spot in the Braves outfield could allow him to regain the level of productivity from his days in Los Angeles. Puig would sign a smaller contract and would allow the Braves to pursue another player on the market.
If the Braves were to go another route and needed to only get a small chip from the free-agent market, there are options available.
Steven Souza Jr. missed half of 2017 and all of 2018 due to tearing his ACL, LCL, PCL, and posterior–lateral capsule in his left knee. He was regarded as one of the better up-and-coming power hitters before he went down.
Wilmer Flores, who hit .317 last year, could play third base and bounce around the infield to give guys days off. Flores hit .337 with an OPS of .982 against left-handed pitchers last season.
Kevin Pillar, the former Blue Jay and Giant, can be another platoon option with Markakis in left field. Pillar has a solid glove and can be a veteran hitter in the box.
Ben Zobrist, the switch-hitting super-utility man, can play anywhere. He is on the back end of his career but we know Zobrist can add depth to every position.
The Braves have limited options after missing out on Josh Donaldson. The corner outfield market is the only one with impact players available. Out of the Braves top free-agent options, Castellanos is the best bat, Ozuna is the best all-around player, and Puig is a buy-low candidate with huge upside. Which player will be in the Braves uniform come opening day? Only time will tell.
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