Marcell Ozuna Slides Onto the Injured List

The Braves are short one outfielder for at least six weeks, with Marcell Ozuna placed on the IL after injuring two fingers on his left hand while sliding into third against the Red Sox on Tuesday night. It wasn’t immediately obvious whether Ozuna would miss significant time, with manager Brian Snitker telling the press that the two-time All-Star was going back to Atlanta for tests, but with Wednesday came the news that his stay on the shelf would be a long one.

Ozuna has gotten off to a poor start in 2021, hitting .213/.288/.356 in just over 200 plate appearances, for a 79 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR — a major disappointment for a player coming off an OPS of 1.067 last season. It wouldn’t be the first time he had a bit of a letdown year after what seemed to be a breakout campaign, as was the case with his two seasons in St. Louis, but at least he hit for enough batting average then to be a league-average player in a corner outfield position.

Atlanta hasn’t received much production from Ozuna, but there were several reasons to think that his overall lines would recover. His power numbers are down from past seasons, but he’s partially compensated for that with some of the best plate discipline of his career. ZiPS thought his BABIP of .244 should have actually been more like .298 from his contact data, and Statcast saw similar underperformance, with an xBA of .268 and an xSLG of .471, both numbers more in line with his typical showing. A repeat of 2020’s 179 wRC+ was always unreasonable, but even with this early slump, his Depth Chart-projected wRC+ was still at the 123 it was back in March.

Ozuna suffered a similar injury in 2019, breaking the middle and ring fingers on his right hand while sliding during a pickoff attempt. It probably won’t assuage the worries of Braves fans that he went from an .847 OPS before that injury to a .729 OPS after returning, but I wouldn’t worry much about this limited precedent. I haven’t found much underperformance in hitters returning from broken fingers, and month-to-month play is quite volatile without any injury-based explanations involved. Short of significantly worse news, I wouldn’t be especially concerned about Ozuna after he returns, probably at or near the All-Star break. At least he can take it as consolation that he broke his fingers doing actual baseball things, unlike Zach Plesac, who suffered a broken thumb taking off his shirt.

But the Braves need to cover the position for six weeks, and while the outlook for replacements isn’t bleak, they all represent likely serious downgrades on Ozuna. Guillermo Heredia, who’s been starting in center field full time since returning from a short IL stint due to knee inflammation, is the simplest choice after greatly outperforming expectations over the first two months of the season. The projections aren’t terribly bullish on Heredia continuing the breakout, though; ZiPS’ projected rest-of-season wRC+ of 100 is the most optimistic one.

But even if you think that Heredia’s turned the corner — a risky supposition based on under a hundred plate appearances for a veteran — he’s not exactly replacing Ozuna. Center looks to be a weakness at a minimum while Ozuna’s out, with some combination of Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte covering the position. The former is an excellent prospect, but he’s struggled at Lewis Brinson-esque levels in his limited major league time and, because of the COVID-season, basically missed a key year of offensive development. All the projection systems see him as a sub .700 OPS hitter at the moment, and Triple-A might just be the best place for him at the moment. The computers are no more optimistic about Inciarte or another possibility to see some time in left, Johan Camargo.

If I’m the Braves and trying to find a solution in-house, I think I’d try to catch lightning in a bottle and call up Drew Waters, who is at least playing well for Triple-A Gwinnett. It would require a spot on the 40-man roster, but if you think Waters could win games now, should the prospect of losing Jay Flaa be enough to change your mind?

ZiPS thinks that the loss of Ozuna for six weeks could cost the Braves a win in the standings. That’s not a catastrophic result, but it’s a win in a division where only three games separate the first-place Mets from the last-place Nationals. While one could say New York has been lucky to stay in first place with an underwater run differential and a roster torn apart by injuries, that should improve; the team currently has a whopping 10 players on the 10-day IL, and Francisco Lindor is presumably not going to hit like a Double-A journeyman forever.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
New York Mets 87 75 .537 47.2% 12.2% 59.4% 4.8% 0.0% 20.4
Atlanta Braves 85 77 2 .525 35.6% 13.9% 49.4% 3.6% 0.0% 19.4
Washington Nationals 80 82 7 .494 8.3% 6.0% 14.3% 0.8% 0.0% 14.2
Philadelphia Phillies 80 82 7 .494 8.4% 6.0% 14.4% 0.8% 0.0% 14.4
Miami Marlins 73 89 14 .451 0.5% 0.4% 0.9% 0.0% 1.0% 8.3

The ZiPS estimate for the Ozuna loss is about five percentage points of divisional probability, a significant dropoff for only losing a non-superstar for six weeks. Making matters worse is that the wild card picture has become more complicated since the start of the season. One of those spots still seems destined to go to the loser of a Padres-Dodgers divisional race, but the Giants have shown enough that they now ought to be considered serious threats to take the other spot, something which looked like a long shot two months ago. ZiPS sees Atlanta’s overall playoff probability dropping about four percentage points — the same as if the Padres lost Manny Machado for the rest of the season!

There aren’t many sellers yet for the Braves to make an outside acquisition, but the good news here is that the timeframe for Ozuna’s return (the Marcell-by date?) leaves Atlanta with some breathing space before the trade deadline. Teams like the Pirates and Rockies were always going to be sellers — though there’s not much there in the Colorado outfield — but some teams at the edge of postseason relevance like the Mariners or Reds may be shopping veterans by that point. Losing Ozuna is hardly doom for the Braves, but it makes a tough battle just a bit tougher.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

To be fair, the Braves decided they were going to roll into 2021 with exactly two outfielders who could hit. I think anyone who was paying attention realized it. Since Jackie Bradley Jr. has been terrible you can give them a pass on not pursuing that option but this team had a massive hole in the outfield and no real conceivable backups. There’s an increasing tendency for teams to do the Cleveland thing and just sign some guys to minor league contracts and hope they work out, and then pursue upgrades at the deadline. It’s not much of a plan.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah rolling the dice with Pache was a way riskier plan than a team in their position should’ve taken.

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

I think people sometimes fans underestimate exactly how hard it is to hit major league pitching compared to AAA. I kept hearing from people that Pache would be fine because he would have an 80 wRC+ and the defense would make him worthwhile and I kept thinking an 80 wRC+ was wildly optimistic.

The reason the Braves did it this way, I think, is that there are just no real good options for center fielders these days. People talk about shortstops being the hardest position to fill but there are 18 teams projected on depth charts to get 2 wins or more out of the shortstop position and only 13 teams projected to get 2 wins or more out of the center field position. And that’s with Verdugo (a natural right fielder) playing center…and Ketel Marte, who plays a decent CF but they’ve wanted to switch him to 2nd for years now. And Ian Happ, who’s positionless but not much worse at CF than anywhere else.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

On another note: I just noticed that ZiPs projects Pache for a .273 OBP, only 8 home runs (in ~300 PAs) and a wRC+ of 80. This is crazy; players who get on base this little and don’t hit home runs are basically worthless offensively. But according to ZiPs due to the fact that he’s projected for 22 doubles/triples in about half a season’s work. That would be 44 over a whole season.

In 2019, there were only TWELVE players who did that. Their OBPs range from .335 to .412; their wRC+’s range from 101 to 154. The idea that Pache was going to hit that many doubles / triples is not plausible, and it’s insane to think he could do this while not getting on base .even 28% of the time. I get that offense is down around the league but I just don’t buy any of this. At all.

Joseph Meyermember
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Do players who don’t hit home runs, hit doubles instead? I would think that would be plausible

2 years ago
Reply to  Joseph Meyer

Mostly, players who don’t hit home runs but do hit doubles play at Fenway Park.