Braves fans braced themselves for the worst when Josh Donaldson’s free agency came up. The third baseman departed Atlanta for Minneapolis, leaving a gap in the Braves’ lineup where a hard-hitting former MVP should be.
The Braves, who finished in first place in the NL East above the eventual World Series-winning Nationals, moved to stay competitive. In somewhat of an on-the-nose move, they went after one of the players most responsible for keeping them from advancing in the post-season: Marcell Ozuna.
But will a Braves roster centered on the power-hitting former Cardinal put the Braves over the top in 2020?
What Marcell Ozuna brings to the Braves
Don’t get too caught up in the detail that this is only a one year, $18 million deal. Ozuna, 29, is exactly the kind of proven hitter who any team with postseason aspirations can use. The acquisition was a steal, and it’s surprising to most observers, Ozuna included, that the deal was even possible.
The 29-year-old has years left in the tank, having entered the MLB in 2013. Ozuna racked up Player of the Week and two All-Star nods putting in time on a tanking Marlins squad, before joining the Cards in 2018.
After dealing with shoulder issues for much of 2018, Ozuna blossomed into a relatively dependable hitter. He tallied a .241 batting average in 2019. The number looks a lot better when accompanied by his 29 home runs and 89 RBIs. Ozuna’s getting stronger, too. He got close to sending out the most hard-hit balls in MLB last year.
Can Ozuna fill the gap left by Josh Donaldson?
Ozuna is fine on his own. The important thing is whether he can handle living up to Donaldson’s production, and earn a longer contract in Atlanta. Donaldson’s move to the Twins leaves Atlanta without a .259 hitter, who rocketed 37 homers and knocked in 94 RBIs in 2019. Ozuna was a notch below that year.
However, Ozuna’s best year, 2017, goes above and beyond. He hit .312, racking up 37 homers and 124 RBIs in the process. This is the performance he is potentially trending back toward.
His postseason performance hints at that. Against the Braves, Ozuna hit .429 with two home runs in a five-game NLDS eruption against his new team. And Ozuna is not alone in providing fresh, improved play to the Braves.
The bigger picture of the Braves’ offseason moves
Donaldson isn’t the only big loss for the Braves. Notably, ace Dallas Keuchel — tangentially embroiled in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal — is headed to the White Sox. And he’s taking his 3.75 ERA with him.
Donaldson and Keuchel were key figures in the Braves’ 2019 first-place finish. Ozuna is the primary replacement for the former. Both Seattle legend Felix Hernandez and solid ex-Cub Cole Hamels will try to make up for the latter.
Hernandez, with his 3.10 career ERA, still seems unflappably great. The eruption of emotion in Seattle at his exit from the city was in large part because the guy is likely still an ace. He’s been slowed only by two years of recovering from a shoulder injury. King Felix has had a strong Spring Training start, looking closer to his pre-injury 2016 form.
Hamels, worryingly, is on the other side of his own shoulder injury. He isn’t pitching in Spring Training as he recovers — and the world waits out the coronavirus — and likely won’t be available until late April. The one-time Rangers ace was more inconsistent over his two years in Chicago.
The fifth spot in the Braves’ rotation will likely go to Hernandez at the season’s start. That leaves Hamels in an awkward situation if the King flourishes. Compared to the pitching situation, Ozuna seems like a sure thing — and potentially an upgrade, if his return to 2017 levels pans out.