ATLANTA -- Though Will Smith, Cole Hamels and each of the other offseason additions will influence the Braves’ bid for a third consecutive National League East title, much of the focus during Spring Training will be on Marcell Ozuna, the veteran outfielder who will attempt to restore his value while attempting to compensate for the loss of Josh Donaldson.
The Braves fortified their bullpen by signing Smith and extending their relationships with Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. They created potential stability within the middle of their rotation by signing Hamels. And they still have many of the key pieces of a powerful offense that will prove even more potent if Ozuna stays healthier and more productive than he was the past two years with the Cardinals.
Here are three ways Ozuna’s presence could influence the Braves this year.
Ozuna stands with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts and Charlie Blackmon as the only outfielders who have hit at least 23 home runs each of the past four seasons. The Braves’ latest addition tallied a career-high 37 homers when he was last in the National League East with the Marlins in 2017. His homer total dipped to 23 with the Cardinals in '18 and rose to 29 last year.
A right shoulder impingement limited Ozuna’s swing two years ago and continued to adversely impact his arm strength, especially defensively, after he had surgery before the start of the 2019 season. He hit a pair of homers off the Braves’ Dallas Keuchel in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. But there weren’t any clear signs he gained strength as the year progressed. He hit 10 of his 29 homers before the end of April and produced a .436 slugging percentage over the regular season’s final five months.
To put this in perspective, there were 109 big leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances after April who produced a higher slugging percentage during that span.
A look at Statcast data suggests Ozuna experienced some bad luck, as he hit a career-low .241 with a .472 slugging percentage. His expected batting average was .288, and his expected slugging percentage was .548. That was a product of the fact he produced a higher average exit velocity (91.8 mph) and hard-hit rate (49.2 percent) than he had during his career-best 2017 season (90.7 mph and 45.2 percent).
Though these expected statistics could strengthen any optimistic argument, the Braves are simply concerned about compensating for the loss of Donaldson, who produced a .900 OPS and tallied 37 homers last season despite slumbering through the first two months.
Ozuna has shown he can hit 30 homers in a season, and the 29-year-old outfielder could draw some extra motivation from his one-year contract. But his decline over the past two seasons creates reason to believe that to fully compensate for Donaldson’s departure, the Braves will need to draw value from the improvements made to the bullpen, bench and possibly their rotation.
Within the past two weeks a pair of scouts have essentially said, “I don’t think you understand how bad Ozuna is defensively.”
Well, Ozuna certainly wouldn’t be the first former Gold Glove Award winner to be described in this manner. But there has been a decline since 2017, when the left fielder received the defensive honor.
Ozuna recorded 3 Outs Above Average in 2017, minus-1 OAA in '18 and minus-8 OAA in '19. Of the 66 other outfielders who totaled at least 200 attempts last year, only seven had a lower OAA.
Still, as you digest this information, it’s important to remember what improved defensive positioning, combined with a rangy Ender Inciarte, did for Nick Markakis’ metrics when he won a Gold Glove in 2018. The positioning can be viewed as somewhat of a constant in this variable. But its effectiveness will be influenced by how Inciarte recovers from last year’s late-season leg injuries.
Even if it’s understood Ozuna will likely not be a Gold Glover, the combination of his bat and glove should give the Braves more value than they would have gotten had they given the 36-year-old Markakis a majority of the playing time while sticking with the initial possibility of platooning him with Adam Duvall in left field.
The Camargo/Riley Effect
Instead of focusing on whether Ozuna can compensate for Donaldson’s absence, it would be more effective to analyze whether the combination of Ozuna and the third baseman (Johan Camargo or Austin Riley) can trump, or at least come close to equaling, what the Braves would have received from Donaldson and the left-field platoon (Markakis and Duvall).
Camargo will most likely begin the season as the starting third baseman. He’ll have a chance to duplicate the success he had in 2018, when he hit 17 homers and produced an .811 OPS after becoming the Braves’ third baseman near the end of May. He’s not Donaldson with the glove, but the 3 Infield OAA he was credited with that year ranked ninth among all third basemen with at least 150 attempts.
If Riley can once again produce like he did during the first six weeks of his career, the Braves could eventually give him the starting role, knowing his power could compensate for any defensive decline. This would then further strengthen a bench that could include Camargo, Markakis and Duvall.
Ozuna alone might not compensate for the loss of Donaldson. But he has the potential to be an impact player, and his addition could actually make the Braves deeper and stronger than they would have been had they realized their hope to bring Donaldson back.