Braves hope Ozuna can reclaim power, prowess
Snitker confident in Atlanta's ability to 'maximize' slugger's strengths
NORTH PORT, Fla. -- When Marcell Ozuna arrived at Braves camp on Sunday, he took another step toward attempting to prove his 2017 season was more a sign of his tremendous potential than it was an outlier.
“I’ve liked him ever since he came up with the Marlins,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We used to always say he’s one of those guys who hits good pitching. He’s always been an offensive force. In our system, defensively, we can help him, make him better and maximize what he’s got going on. As long as he’s willing to work and do all that, there’s no reason he shouldn’t get back to where he’s been.”
Since Ozuna signed his one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves in January, he has often been compared to Josh Donaldson, who used last year’s one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta to gain a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins.
But given the defensive concerns that surround Ozuna, there may also be reason to compare him to fellow Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, who pocketed his first National League Gold Glove Award -- his first two were in the American League with Baltimore -- after general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his staff brought a sophisticated defensive positioning system to Atlanta before the 2018 season.
Per Baseball Savant, Markakis ranked 26th out of 33 MLB right fielders (minimum 100 attempts) with minus-3 Outs Above Average in 2017. He ranked ninth out of 37 right fielders with +2 OAA when he was a 34-year-old Gold Glover in '18.
Ozuna ranked fifth among 32 left fielders with +3 OAA when he won his only career Gold Glove Award with the 2017 Marlins. The 29-year-old left fielder ranked 18th among 31 with minus-1 OAA in '18 and 24th out of 32 last year with minus-8 OAA.
Adding to the defensive concerns is the fact Ozuna has not been able to regain his arm strength since undergoing surgery to repair a right shoulder impingement after the 2018 season.
Asked about his arm strength again on Sunday, Ozuna said, “I feel a little better. We’re going to keep working on that and do what I can do.”
“I think more than anywhere where you notice the difference [with positioning] is in how we play our outfield defense and how it helps the players, especially the corner guys,” Snitker said. “When Ender [Inciarte] is in center, we can put him in our dugout and he’ll go find the ball.”
The Braves’ primary outfield trio will consist of Ozuna in left field, Inciarte in center and Ronald Acuña Jr. in right. This trio doesn’t eclipse the one Ozuna was a part of when he was flanked by 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and '18 NL MVP Christian Yelich with the '17 Marlins.
But it certainly has a chance to be a strong one, especially if Ozuna can get back to where he was in 2017, when he hit 37 homers and produced a .924 OPS. His 6.1 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, that year is the seventh-highest mark by any NL outfielder in any of the past three seasons.
Ozuna has produced a slightly above average 107 OPS+ while playing with the Cardinals the past two seasons. But he did at least start trending back in the right direction from a power perspective when he hit 29 homers with a .800 OPS last year.
Time will tell whether the Braves and Ozuna both prove satisfied with the return on this one-year deal. But the veteran outfielder seems to be approaching the season in optimistic fashion. When asked if he'd produce like he did in 2017, he quickly replied, “Maybe better.”