2021 Atlanta Braves: Compensating for Ozuna

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On January 21, 2020, the Atlanta Braves inked Marcell Ozuna to a one-year deal that worked out tremendously for both sides. But now, the 2021 Atlanta Braves must re-sign him or look elsewhere to replace the pop Ozuna brought to the offense.

2021 Atlanta Braves Losing a Big Bat

Marcell Ozuna in 2020 was a huge bat in the lineup for the Atlanta Braves. Slashing .338/.431/.636 over 267 plate appearances in the COVID-19 shortened season, Ozuna was the home run leader (18) and RBI leader (56) in the National League.

In the Atlanta Braves lineup, Ozuna posted a 179 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR, second only to the 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman. Only one of three players on the Braves to appear in all 60 games of the 2020 season, Ozuna logged the most plate appearances on the team and was a consistent threat in the lineup. Brian Snitker partway through the season even moved Ozuna to the three-hole in the lineup due to his hot bat, pushing Freeman to the second spot.

Ozuna’s season was helped tremendously by the fact that the Universal DH was implemented in the NL due to COVID in 2020. The Braves knew that Ozuna was not the defender earlier in his career, but may not have known the extent to which his abilities had diminished. Out of outfielders with at least 100 innings on defense, Marcell played 162 innings to put him 118th out of 148 in innings played. But even with limited time in the outfield, Ozuna still managed -2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -2.7. Extrapolated over 150 games his UZR/150 was -16.1, 137th out of 148 for outfielders with at least 100 innings.

The Marcell Ozuna Market

The 2021 free-agent market for Ozuna is very interesting. Major League Baseball has not decided on whether the designated hitter will remain in the National League for 2021 but told teams in December to operate under the assumption that there will be no universal DH in the coming season.

For Marcell Ozuna, and a handful of other players, operating under the assumption there will be no DH in the National League essentially cuts the number of teams he could join in half. As discussed previously, Ozuna’s defensive ability has diminished tremendously over the years. After the last few seasons of playing the field, it’s no surprise that he is seen as a DH only player entering 2021.

MLB Trade Rumors stated in early November that Ozuna had at least ten teams interested in him, including the Braves. Since that report, the market for Ozuna has been rather quiet. It’s possible NL teams don’t want to make an offer until they know something for sure about the DH, or that the money and years Ozuna is asking for seems too high for teams coming off a year where they brought in little to no ticket revenue.

Still, after the 2020 season, Ozuna should be able to find a home and a nice chunk of change, even if it’s another one-year deal with the 2021 Atlanta Braves.

Options to Replace Ozuna

With the Universal DH in limbo for the 2021 season and the Braves missing a key bat in the lineup, what can they do to compensate for Ozuna? John Morosi of MLB Network has said that the Braves’ priority at the moment is addressing left field. Here are some intriguing players on the free-agent market that they could look at.

George Springer

Springer is considered one of the top free agents of the 2021 class. Spending the previous six seasons with the Houston Astros with 300 games in center field and 534 games in right field, he is at least an average defender, if not above average, at all three outfield spots. Springer has never posted a season wRC+ below 118, and as recently as 2019 posted a 156 wRC+ with 39 home runs and an fWAR of 6.5 (10th best in all MLB).

Springer is probably out of the Braves price range considering their previous spending habits, and with prospects such as Cristian Pache and Drew Waters almost ready to take on MLB talent, a long term outfield contract may not be what the Braves are looking for.

Joc Pederson

Pederson had a rough go of it at the plate in 2020, posting an OPS of .682 and a wRC+ of 88 in a limited 138 plate appearances. Part of this struggle could be chalked up to an unlucky BABIP of just .200. Pederson had near-identical seasons between 2018 and 2019. His OPS was .843 in 2018 and .877 in 2019 and his wRC+ was 126 and 127 in those years, respectively.

Braves fans may not think Pederson had a down year because in the 2020 postseason he looked like 2018/2019 Joc. A complete change in BABIP to .423 gave him a postseason wRC+ of 168 and a cool .991 slugging percentage.

With a down year in 2020, the Braves could offer Pederson one of their famous one-year deals. While Pederson’s fielding does leave something to be desired, he’s more than serviceable in left field. If he can perform at the plate in the regular season and postseason, the Braves would be more than happy to take him from the reigning World Series Champion Dodgers.

Michael Brantley

Brantley was on the Braves’ radar after the 2018 season when he left Cleveland, for good reason. Houston snatched up the tenured outfielder and got two years of 134 wRC+, also, with a .309/.370/.497 slash line. While he is still projected to be an above-average bat and fielder, Brantley turns 34 years old in May of 2021. His advanced age could make teams shy away from offering a multi-year deal.

Just like with Pederson, offering Brantley a one-year deal could be a good move for the Braves. Brantley has a proven track record and brings veteran experience to the clubhouse.

Eddie Rosario

Rosario might not be the flashy name Braves fans are looking for, but he definitely fits the mold the Braves are pursuing. For the last four years, Rosario has posted a wRC+ between 103 and 117, and as recently as 2018 he posted an fWAR of 3.5.

He’s not going to replace the production Ozuna gave the Braves in 2020, but as far as cheap, reliable options go, Rosario is on the list. One problem Rosario has been facing that the Braves could try to fix to maximize offensive production is his BABIP. In the first four years of Rosario’s career, he averaged a BABIP of .325. In 2019 that dropped to .273 and dropped again in 2020 to .248. If the Braves could find a way to increase his BABIP as they did with Ozuna, he could have his best year since 2018.

Yasiel Puig

During the second stint of 2020 Spring Training, the Braves reached an agreement to bring Puig to Atlanta. However, a week before the Braves’ first game of the 2020 season, Puig tested positive for COVID-19 and opted out of the season.

It’s been almost eight years since The Wild Horse broke onto the scene in 2013 and lit the diamond on fire, but Puig still has value. His most recent season of 2019 was different from his others, as he didn’t play in Dodger blue. He played 100 games for the Reds and posted a 95 wRC+.

In the second half of 2019, Puig was part of the blockbuster three-team trade that sent Trevor Bauer to the Reds and Taylor Trammell to the Padres. That change of scenery helped Puig tremendously, bumping his BABIP from .272 to .380 and now posting an above-average wRC+ of 112 for Cleveland.

Like Rosario, Puig isn’t the sexy free-agent name Braves fans are looking for. But the team had an interest in him as recently as July 2020, and he again would be a cheap but consistent place holder in the corner outfield spots while Drew Waters and Cristian Pache continue to develop. 

Other Options

There are other outfield bats on the market the 2021 Atlanta Braves could take a look at. Adam Duvall was part of the Braves in 2019 and 2020 (albeit he spent most of 2019 in AAA), and posted an above-average wRC+ in both years. However, over the course of his career, Duvall has hit much better against left-handed pitching, so if the Braves bring him back it will probably be to platoon with another outfielder.

Top prospect Cristian Pache only had four plate appearances during the 2020 regular season but had 25 PAs in the postseason. This was in part to Adam Duvall going down with an injury in the postseason, but it’s clear Pache is part of the Braves’ long-term plans in the outfield with Ronald Acuña Jr. They could opt to throw him into the fire in 2021 and let him learn what MLB pitching is all about while patrolling center field with his highly touted platinum-level glove.

Drew Waters is another top prospect of the Braves that could be used in 2021. He has the potential to be an all-star outfielder one day, but right now the Braves are concerned with him lowering his strikeout rate. Without a 2020 minor league season, Waters’ progression to the majors was put on hold of sorts. But if the Braves believe he has a long-term future in the organization, they could opt to use an outfield placeholder to start 2021 until they are ready to call up Waters.

Other notable outfield free-agent options right now for the 2021 Atlanta Braves are players such as Kevin Pillar, Albert Almora, Cameron Maybin, or Kiké Hernández, but none of these players would replace the offensive production that Marcell Ozuna brought in 2020.

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Garrett Allen is a recent college graduate from Valdosta State University and is now pursuing a Masters of Science in Strategic Sports Analytics at the California University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Georgia, he is an avid Braves fan and has a particular interest in prospect development.