Ozuna 'proud' to be back with Braves

February 6th, 2021

ATLANTA -- A day after finally receiving an offer from the Braves, celebrated his return to Atlanta by playfully asking president of baseball operations and GM Alex Anthopoulos why he waited so long to complete this transaction.

“Alex, I’ve got a question for you,” Ozuna said while meeting with reporters via Zoom on Saturday. “If you [were] thinking Marcell Ozuna would be easy, why didn’t you do it [right] after the season ended?”

Put on the spot by his fun-loving, comical slugger, Anthopoulos laughed while saying, “As long as we get it done by Opening Day, we get it done.”

Ozuna expressed excitement as he discussed the four-year, $64 million contract he signed with the Braves on Friday. The deal puts him back in the middle of a potent Atlanta lineup that he fueled through Game 7 of last year’s National League Championship Series.

“My mind was always with Atlanta,” Ozuna said. “I just wanted them to say something to sign me back. I was on the market to find a new place. But at the same time, I just kept waiting for [the Braves’] decision.”

While visiting a friend on Friday, Ozuna received a call from his agent who relayed some information he received from the Rays. The veteran outfielder responded by saying, “I don’t like it, we’ll see what the Braves say.”

Fortunately for Ozuna, he didn’t wait much longer before finally getting the information and offer he had long awaited from Anthopoulos.

“As soon as the Braves and Alex bring something, I said, ‘Go with them,’” Ozuna said.

“There was no offer that we moved up or changed,” Anthopoulos said. “It was real quick. It was done in a day. It started in one day and ended in one day. We had stayed in contact. But we didn’t talk contract until a day or two ago.”

Courtesy of these swift negotiations, Ozuna will have a chance to build upon the success he had after signing a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves last year. He finished sixth in NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting after hitting .338 with an NL-best 18 homers and a 1.067 OPS.

Ozuna’s 179 wRC+ ranked third in the Majors, trailing only Juan Soto and Freddie Freeman, who won his first NL MVP Award while batting in front of Ozuna last year.

Yes, these numbers were compiled over the course of just 60 games. But some of the metrics from this pandemic-shortened season suggest that the 30-year-old slugger could continue to produce at a similarly high level over the next few seasons.

Ozuna’s average exit velocity (93 mph vs. 90.7 mph), hard-hit rate (54.4 percent vs. 45.4 percent) and barrel percentage (15.4 percent vs. 8.9 percent) were all higher last year than in 2017, when he hit a career-best 37 homers and produced a .924 OPS for the Marlins.

“I think our environment really fit him well and we got the best out of him,” Anthopoulos said. “He helped the team in so many ways, both on the field and in the [clubhouse].”

So why did it take so long for the Braves to approach Ozuna?

Anthopoulos said uncertainties about the payroll and other industry issues played a part in not extending Ozuna an offer until two weeks before the start of Spring Training. He prioritized the rotation this year by signing veteran hurlers Charlie Morton ($15 million) and Drew Smyly ($11 million) to one-year deals in November.

There’s no doubt the Braves needed to address a rotation that was pieced together over the course of last year’s short season. But the potential value of adding those two veteran starters would have been reduced had Anthopoulos not satisfied his pursuit of a right-handed slugger capable of doing what Josh Donaldson and Ozuna had done while batting behind Freeman over the past two seasons.

Earlier in the offseason, the Braves evaluated trading for Nolan Arenado or signing George Springer. The likelihood of adding either of them was slim, as Atlanta prepared to lower its payroll this year. The club also looked at left-handed sluggers Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley. All five have since signed with other teams, of course. Pederson actually surprised some in the industry on Friday, when he opted to sign a one-year, $7 million deal with the Cubs. He seemed interested in joining the Braves, who could have used him in a left-field platoon.

As time passed and the options dwindled, re-signing Ozuna seemed more realistic for the Braves, who managed to do so at a cost of just $16 million per season. He will receive $64 million through the first four years of his contract, which also includes a $15 million option with a $1 million buyout.

With the expectation that the universal designated hitter will return beyond the upcoming season, the Braves could comfortably use Ozuna as their DH over the final years of his deal. But they will have to consider his defensive limitations while using him as their primary left fielder this year.

Ozuna was used as an outfielder in just 21 of the Braves’ 60 games last year. His success as a DH allowed him to become the first NL player to win the Edgar Martinez Award, which is given to the game’s top DH on an annual basis.

“He was definitely a priority,” Anthopoulos said. “You don’t know how things are going to go. But having spoken to him, I knew Atlanta was his first choice. He was our first choice. I’m just excited we were able to get it done.”

As Saturday’s Zoom session was nearing an end, Anthopoulos joked that he was now placing Ozuna in charge of negotiating Freeman’s extension.

“I’m going to get Marcell to do [Freeman’s] deal because he can do it fast and early,” Anthopoulos said. “He can do it to see what it’s like to be a GM.”

As Anthopoulos kept the patter going, Ozuna continued to smile, much like he has since Friday, when the Braves finally made the call he had been seeking.

“I feel good to be with the team,” Ozuna said. “The experience I had in Atlanta last year with them was the best experience of my life. I’m proud to be an Atlanta Braves player.”