Marcell Ozuna Braves a Return to Atlanta

Just as the baseball industry was catching its breath following the news of Trevor Bauer signing with the Dodgers, the free agent market’s top hitter, Marcell Ozuna, agreed to a deal as well. After a monster season in which he helped the Braves come within one win of their first trip to the World Series this millennium, he’ll stay in Atlanta on a four-year, $65 million deal. If that contract — which includes a club option for 2025 that can take the total package to $80 million — seems light compared to what the free market’s other top players have received, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

Consider for a moment that Bauer, a 30-year-old righty who won the NL Cy Young award during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, has yet to put together a 30-start season with an ERA or FIP below 4.00 in parts of nine major league seasons, during which he’s been about nine or 10 percent better than average according to FIP- and ERA-. Via the structure of his three-year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers, he’ll set single-season records for salary in the first two years ($40 million and $45 million), with an average annual value of $34 million if he doesn’t opt out after years one or two.

The 30-year-old Ozuna is coming off the best season of an eight-year major league career during which he’s been 17 percent better than average according to wRC+. In 2020, he set across-the-board career highs in his slash stats, hitting .338/.431/.636, all of which ranked third in the NL, as did his 179 wRC+. Additionally, his 18 homers, 56 RBI, 145 total bases and 267 plate appearances all led the league, while his 2.5 WAR — which matched that of Bauer, interestingly enough — ranked seventh. Yet the $16.25 million AAV of his contract isn’t half that of Bauer, and it’s well below those of two of the four other position player free agents who have landed deals of at least four years:

Top Position Player Free Agent Contracts, 2021
Player Pos Age 2020 WAR Proj WAR Yrs Total AAV
George Springer Blue Jays 31 1.9 4.5 6 $150.0 $25.0
J.T. Realmuto Phillies 30 1.7 3.8 5 $115.5 $23.1
DJ LeMahieu Yankees 32 2.5 3.8 6 $90.0 $15.0
Marcell Ozuna Braves 30 2.5 2.8 4 $65.0 $16.3
James McCann Mets 31 1.5 0.8 4 $40.0 $10.0
All dollar figures in millions.

Ozuna’s total guarantee is $5 million less than Craig Edwards and our crowdsource estimated for a four-year deal in the service of our Top 50 Free Agents list back in November. It’s less than half that of Springer, and less than three-quarters that of LeMahieu, who had the third-highest deal. It’s not the lowest AAV of the group; McCann doesn’t have the track record to get that kind of money, while LeMahieu’s deal is structured so as to water down his AAV for Competitive Balance Tax purposes. It makes more sense to think of it along the lines of four years at $22.0 million for his ages-32-35 seasons plus two years at $1 million for ages-36 and 37. Unlike the Yankees, the Braves are no threat to bump up against the tax threshold, and if we were to similarly imagine Ozuna’s AAV being diluted by a deal that’s more reasonably viewed as three years (ages-30-32) at $21 million plus has age-33 season at $1 million, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense either.

The answer — and the reason the Bauer parallel goes only so far — has to be in how the Braves view Ozuna at this stage, which is largely as a designated hitter, at least eventually if not for 2021 (“Marcell is our everyday left fielder,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Saturday). Though he’s historically been an above-average outfielder, with a career 4.8 UZR/150 in left field even with the occasional high-profile, wall-climbing gaffe, Ozuna started just 21 games in the field in 2020. He capitalized on the arrival of the universal DH in the NL by making 39 starts there.

Alas, MLB and the players union have yet to reach a deal on bringing back the universal DH for 2021, which is silly because it’s almost certain to wind up in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league offered to bring it back in exchange for another year of expanded playoffs, but that wasn’t an equitable deal for the players. But from the owners’ standpoint, the payoff for not resolving the matter has been a slow free agent market where some of its top hitters — Ozuna, Justin Turner, Michael Brantley, and Nelson Cruz — have faced uncertainty and constraints on which teams were interested. The Braves and Dodgers were reportedly interested in Cruz, but once the union rejected MLB’s proposal to delay the start of the season by a month, upping the pressure on the remaining free agents to sign and reducing the odds on a deal to bring back the DH for NL teams, Cruz re-upped with the Twins for one year and $13 million.

Ozuna underwent right shoulder surgery after the 2018 season, a cleanup to address impingement and inflammation. Those nagging problems had affected his performance on both sides of the ball, including a dip from a 37-homer, 143-wRC+ breakout in 2017 (age-26) to a 23-homer, 107-wRC+ showing the following year after being traded to the Cardinals. Conceding that his shoulder still wasn’t 100% in April 2019, Ozuna turned in a similarly modest season offensively (29 homers, 107 wRC+). The shoulder didn’t seem to hamper him at the plate in 2020; on the contrary, he showed improved bat speed, setting a career best with a 93.0 mph average exit velocity, up from 91.8 mph and placing him in the 96th percentile, and he just absolutely destroyed fastballs, hitting them for a .492 average, .932 slugging percentage and .544 xwOBA; only teammate Freddie Freeman, the NL’s MVP, was better.

On the other side of the ball, it was a different story. Ozuna didn’t have a single outfield assist in 19 games in left field and two in right, and according to Statcast, his hardest tracked throw was just 78.6 mph, coming on this two-run single by the Rays’ Hunter Renfroe on July 29:

Ozuna fields the ball and comes up firing, but his throw is so noncompetitive that there’s no play at home, though to be fair, the runner on second, Kevin Kiermaier, has 97th-percentile sprint speed and gets a good jump. It’s just one data point, but… again, that was his hardest tracked throw all season, that from a guy who once did this:

Anyway, the implication is that because Ozuna’s throwing ain’t what it used to be, the Braves aren’t wild about the idea of him as an everyday left fielder, Anthopoulos’ words to the contrary. Consider this ZiPS projection via Dan Szymborski:

ZiPS Projection – Marcell Ozuna
2021 .287 .356 .531 550 83 158 28 2 34 127 59 133 5 129 3 4.1
2022 .285 .355 .530 519 78 148 27 2 32 119 56 124 4 128 3 3.8
2023 .281 .349 .511 501 72 141 26 1 29 110 52 117 4 122 2 3.2
2024 .276 .342 .480 475 65 131 23 1 24 97 48 106 3 113 2 2.4
2025 .268 .331 .453 448 57 120 21 1 20 84 42 95 3 103 1 1.5

Ignore that 2025 projection for his option year for a moment. For the other four seasons, Ozuna is projected to produce 13.5 WAR, which comes out to just $4.8 million per projected win. By comparison, the ZiPS projections for Springer ($8.6 million), Bauer ($8.2 million), Realmuto ($7.45 million), and LeMahieu ($5.8 million) are much higher. Likewise, the $32 million, two-year deal for Brantley with the Astros — nearly the same AAV as Ozuna, but on shorter terms for a player 3 1/2 years older — comes out to about $6.0 million per projected win.

Ozuna’s ZiPS presupposes that he’s playing left field, and doing so at an appreciably above-average clip (DR is defensive runs). If he’s DHing, according to Dan his annual WAR projections drop to 3.6, 3.2, 2.7, 2.1, and then 1.4 for the option year; that’s 11.6 WAR for the first four seasons, about $5.6 million per win, which is at least in the ballpark of LeMahieu’s average.

Obviously, Ozuna’s not going to go broke with that contract, but it’s nonetheless a rough outcome for a player whose earning power has taken multiple hits to this point, and probably won’t be in this position again. Back in 2015, Ozuna’s service clock was gamed by the Marlins with a six-week detour to Triple-A in 2015 while he was in the midst of a three-week slump, which prevented him from becoming a Super Two but did not forestall his free agency (he’d have been eight days short; the Marlins knew what they were doing when they brought him up in late April 2013). Once he did hit free agency for the first time after his modest 2.5-WAR 2019 season, his $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Cardinals acted as a drag on his market, and he settled for a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. Now this, with the uncertainty about the DH again slowing his market, though he reportedly had interest from the Rays, who no doubt smelled a bargain, and the Dodgers, who probably would have needed the DH slot to justify signing him, and who then sent their payroll into the stratosphere by signing Bauer. Had things played out differently, health- and market-wise, Ozuna might have easily guaranteed himself more than $100 million last winter, if not this one.

Per SportsGrid’s Craig Mish, Ozuna’s deal is backloaded; he’ll make $12 million in 2021, $16 million in ’22, and then $18 million in ’23 and ’24. He has a $16 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2025. For as comparatively modest as the contract is, this is the first time the Braves have signed a free agent position player to a deal of longer than two years since they inked Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million contract in December 2014, when John Hart was the interim general manager. Their only multi-year deals to free agents in the years since went to infielder Sean Rodriguez (two years, $11 million after 2016, when John Coppolella was GM), catcher Travis d’Arnaud (two years, $16 million) and reliever Will Smith (three years, $35 million), the last two of whom were signed last winter by Anthopoulos.

If there’s no DH for 2021, the Braves’ primary outfield alignment will likely feature Ozuna in left, Cristian Pache in center, and Ronald Acuña Jr. in right, with Ender Inciarte either the fourth outfielder or the alternative in center if the 22-year-old Pache, who has just 26 games of Double-A experience and 14 games in the majors (12 of those in the postseason), needs more minor league seasoning. With superutilityman Johan Camargo having posted just a 64 wRC+ in 375 PA over the past two seasons, they could almost certainly use a more offense-minded backup outfielder in the picture. Bringing back Adam Duvall, who was non-tendered in November despite bopping 26 homers and posting a 117 wRC+ in 339 PA over the past two seasons, would make sense.

On a day when the Mets lost out on Bauer, the addition of Ozuna undoubtedly bolsters the Braves’ chances in the NL East. Their roster could still use some finishing touches — the aforementioned outfield bat, an upgrade from Austin Riley at third base, more arms for the bullpen — but the fearsome 1-2-3 of Acuña, Freeman and Ozuna atop a lineup that ranked second in the NL in scoring and pushed the eventual champion Dodgers to the brink of elimination, is back in place.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I’ll start by saying I’m extremely excited that the Braves signed Ozuna. I felt like he was a must-sign all off-season. But I think him signing for less than expected money was going to happen all along. For one, it’s telling about his defense that the Braves only played him in the OF 21 games. I understand what the metrics say but it’s pretty clear that teams don’t value his defense the same as the metrics do. Also, while he was great in 2021, it’s only 267 PAs. His career wRC+ before ‘21 was 112. The market isn’t going to overreact based on 267 PAs. And you compare him to Bauer.. starting pitchers are much more valuable than bat only corner outfielders. Not a surprise that Bauer raked in a lot more cash.

3 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

If you look at OAA, which doesn’t include throwing but is a lot closer to what teams use, it shows that his range declined steadily from 2017 to 2018 and from 2018 to 2019. He was better in a limited sample in 2020, but of course, his arm has clearly been a mess and OAA doesn’t account for that. He’s slowed down just a little bit each year in Statcast’s sprint score as well; he’s still above average but he is trending down.

A few things about that. First, I want to know a bit more about the surgery and rehab on that shoulder. The power is back, but clearly whatever muscles that throwing requires aren’t all the way back. Is it gone forever? Is this a Khris Davis situation from here on out? Second, if you’re serious about giving Pache a chance to start in center, and put Acuna in right field, you have to worry a whole lot less about Ozuna’s range. And third, if you are putting Pache in CF, it seems like getting Ozuna’s offense is pretty important