Ozuna or later, the Braves need to find a long term solution for their lineup

Marcell Ozuna is poised to enter free agency at the end of the season. Where will the Braves look to fill that void?

The Braves find themselves in a familiar position, looking for offense to fill the hole just behind Freddie Freeman in their lineup. Marcell Ozuna, signed to a one year deal after the 2019 season, significantly out-performed the $18M contract he received from Atlanta and should be looking to capitalize on that performance unfettered by a qualifying offer. Fans are clamoring for Alex Anthopoulos to re-sign the slugger, but the league has yet to confirm whether or not there will be a designated hitter in the National League next season and while Ozuna impressed at the plate he proved to be a defensive liability in left field last season. Will the Braves reward the bet that Ozuna placed on himself last offseason and give him a multi-year deal, or will they ultimately let him go to the highest bidder like they did with Josh Donaldson last season? If he doesn’t return, where can the Braves look to replace that production and maintain the momentum of 2020’s run to the NLCS?

option 1 – Marcell ozuna

On the surface re-signing Marcell Ozuna makes a lot of sense for Atlanta. He’s right handed, hit for power (1.067 OPS), hit for average (.338), and meshed well with a young and exuberant roster. He will play the 2021 season at 30 years of age, 4 years younger than Josh Donaldson, and there is reason to believe the offensive production could be sustainable under a multi-year contract. That production behind Freddie Freeman and the leadership for young players like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, and Cristian Pache could go a long way to sustaining the success the Braves had in 2020.

Unfortunately there are a few things that are working against bringing back Ozuna. First and foremost there’s the money aspect. The Braves can’t extend Ozuna a qualifying offer, so that means he hits the market without draft pick compensation attached. That dramatically increases the number of teams that would be interested in offering him multi-year deals. Also, the revenue loss for 2020 was significant, and unlike most other teams in MLB the Braves did not have a favorable TV deal to fall back on. In fact, the plan to augment revenue that would normally come from such a deal by investing heavily into The Battery development also took a big hit due to plummeting retail sales and lack of foot traffic. Unlike the rest of the league, since the Braves are owned by a publicly traded company their financials are available to the media. We won’t know how much revenue other teams had coming in that the Braves missed out on in 2020, and that could very well be the difference in committing large dollar amounts to the signing of Ozuna.

Additionally, there is still the question of whether or not the NL will have the designated hitter as an option in 2021. If the DH is not an option, that means Ozuna will necessarily have to play in the field. He was terrible defensively last season in those games where Brian Snitker gave him the opportunity, so much so that in the playoffs he never saw the field even after Adam Duvall went down with his oblique injury. All else being equal, having a player who serves as the DH who can also provide meaningful innings in the field would be a boon for a team who prefers to short their bench in favor of relief arms and values positional flexibility as highly, if not more highly, than offensive production on that bench.

Alex Anthopoulos would have to be fairly confident that the 2020 numbers Ozuna put up are sustainable over 162 games in order to commit a significant portion of his 2021 budget to a player who gives zero value in the field. His 2020 production was by far the best of his career, and at 30 it’s unusual for a player to continue to have career years. He most certainly will remain productive but it’s highly unlikely that he will remain in the MVP discussion moving forward. It’s conceivable that he does return to Atlanta, but his contract would have to be incredibly favorable for Anthopoulos to pull the trigger.

Internal options?

Currently there are two internal options that Brian Snitker can look at placing in the order behind Freeman: Travis d’Arnaud and Ronald Acuña, Jr. The drawback to using d’Arnaud is that he will have to be used as the DH in about half of the games, and that only works if MLB allows them to have a DH in the first place. d’Arnaud had a resurgence at the plate in 2020 so this is actually a legitimate possibility that the Braves have to be considering for 2021.

Acuña is an option as well, but this would be an incredibly unpopular move and is one that would probably only happen if the offense struggled to produce early in the season. Acuña has made a name for himself as an exciting and dynamic leadoff hitter who can ambush a pitcher on the first pitch for a HR or work a walk and steal a base. There is a ton of swing-and-miss in his game, however, and while much of that can be attributed to a balky wrist that bothered him for much of the season, if that trend continues next season Snitker might be forced to move him down the lineup in favor of a more contact oriented player.

Free agency options

J.T. Realmuto – Ok, this one is a huge stretch. Realmuto is coming off yet another solid season at the plate and continues to be one of the best all-around catchers in the game. There is going to be considerable demand for his services on the market, and that is not a scenario that sets up well for the Braves. Still, the idea that we could have both Realmuto and d’Arnaud in the lineup every day is tantalizing, to say the least.

Justin Turner – Before joining L.A. Justin Turner was a light hitting obscurity. Moving to the West Coast was all it took to turn him into one of the best power hitting 3B in baseball. 2020 was a down year for him, however, and while he’s leaving L.A. as a World Series Champion he’s also facing investigation for his actions during game 6 of that series. He tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from the game, yet he somehow managed to find himself in the middle of the World Series celebration on the field, mask-less, in flagrant violation of the MLB-MLBPA negotiated protocols. It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, this will have in his free agency, especially if there are suspensions involved.

George Springer – Springer will always be tied to the Houston Astros and their cheating scandal, but that shouldn’t mean that he should be anathema around the league, should it? If Alex Anthopoulos gets even a whiff of a rumor that the other GM’s might be devaluing the slugging CF you can bet he’ll be on line one with a big one year offer, you know, just to rebuild his value and such…

DJ Lemahieu – Lemahieu is an Alex Anthopoulos kind of guy. He’s got an MVP-caliber clubhouse presence, is positionally versatile, and he rakes. He’s basically the infield version of Nick Markakis when he came to the Braves. His market this offseason will be fun to watch, and he’s a guy who won’t be immediately tied to Atlanta (which means he might sign before Thanksgiving).

Trade targets

It’s always fun to think about trades because they take imagination. I won’t go into the “fake trade deal” mode yet, but here are some players I think could be attainable if Anthopoulos is willing to deal.

Kris Bryant – Ok, so Bryant’s name comes up all the time in trade discussions, but let’s be honest, the Cubs aren’t going anywhere next year. Maybe it’s time to get what they can get for a guy who is scheduled to make $18.6M next season and coming off a down year. Make the deal early, get him with Kevin Seitzer, and maybe he regains his 2019 form where he hit 31 bombs and slugged .903 for the Cubs.

Trevor Story – Sure, he plays in Colorado, but Trevor Story can hit, folks. And before you cry to me about Dansby Swanson, they have Brendan Rodgers ready to slide over and take over for Story so they don’t necessarily NEED Swanson in a deal.

Jose Abreu – What could be better than bringing Jose Abreu over to the Braves to mentor the young latin players looking to make their mark? Yes, he’s expensive. I know, he has a limited no-trade clause in his contract. Of course, he is as defensively limited as Marcell Ozuna. And he’s a Chicago icon. I get all that, but Abreu is a true AL-style DH, and if the National League gets to keep it, he would be a tremendous get for the Braves. This one is firmly in the “dream big” category, but can you imagine?

Jose Ramirez – The Braves lineup is trending to be pretty right handed dominant next season, so adding Jose Ramirez, a switch hitting slugger, would go a long way towards balancing that out. Ramirez is slated to make $9M next season with club options for 2022 and 2023 totaling $26M. The Indians are looking to improve their outfield, and the Braves could offer some solutions in that regard. The options remaining on Ramirez make him much more attractive than, say, his teammate:

Francisco Lindor – yes, here we are again, talking about the Indians almost certainly trading the superstar shortstop. He’s going to make $20M in 2021, is bound to be headed to free agency after the season, and the Indians are desperate to cut payroll next season. The ask is going to be huge, however, with the high probability of another hole to fill in 2020 at a critical position. Dansby Swanson would likely be sent over in the deal, and the Braves really don’t have any internal options ready to step up at shortstop in the event that Lindor prefers not to extend. This is going to be one of the most talked about scenarios involving the Braves this off-season, but I simply don’t see it happening.

what will the braves do?

That’s the million dollar question, right? If MLB had already let teams know whether or not the DH was going to stay in the NL, I honestly think Ozuna would have been extended rather than allowed to hit free agency. Now that he IS a free agent I don’t believe the Braves re-sign him. The momentum for a favorable deal for Atlanta is gone and his agent is surely sending out feelers to the other 29 teams already. The once-bitten-twice-shy part of me feels like we are destined to see Anthopoulos sign Joc Pederson to a platoon role with Duvall in LF and roll with d’Arnaud hitting fourth behind Freeman. With that said, you simply cannot predict what Alex Anthopoulos is planning to do.

Next week we will look at the next big question for the Braves: how do you replace the loss of Mark Melancon and Shane Greene? Hit me up on Twitter: @ChattTennBraves and let me know what player you think might be a target to fill the void left by Ozuna.

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