Marcell Ozuna was the face of the delightful “mix it up” celebration that permeated Atlanta’s first true postseason run since 2001. The news of his return to the Braves ensures they won’t entirely mix up the formula that almost brought them to the World Series.
Atlanta mashed its way to the postseason last year with MVP Freddie Freeman and Ozuna leading the way to make up for a pitching staff devastated by injuries and inexperience, providing an interesting foil to the franchise’s 1990s dynasty led by a trio of Hall of Fame starters. The Braves scored the second-most runs in the majors, finishing just a run behind the Dodgers, and led the league in OPS (.832). With Ozuna in tow again, they have a chance to redeem themselves after crashing out of the NLCS despite holding 2-0 and 3-1 series leads.
Liberty Media—the franchise’s corporate overlords—would’ve been doing a disservice to the team’s fans if it didn’t rubber-stamp the return of the reigning National League home run leader.
Before Ozuna’s signing, the team’s payroll was projected to be in the bottom half of the league. Even after adding Ozuna’s $16 million salary, the Braves’ estimated payroll of $128 million, per Spotrac, ranks 13th in the majors, behind their three toughest division rivals (sorry, Marlins), the Dodgers, Padres and even the cost-cutting Cubs. That’s absurd for a team with a giant market that spans the entire South and other pockets of the country from the team’s TBS Superstation days.
The Braves started the offseason auspiciously, as they've made a habit of doing under president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, by signing Charlie Morton ($15 million) and Drew Smyly ($11 million) to add a couple of much-needed veteran arms to the rotation. But they'd been practically silent since Thanksgiving, and they had a slugger-sized hole in their lineup behind Freeman. Travis d’Arnaud would’ve likely been pushed into cleanup duty in the absence of Ozuna, and while he enjoyed the best offensive output of his career in 2020, that could prove to be an outlier in a career that’s never seen him play 120 games in a season.
The surprising non-tender of Adam Duvall, who tied for third in the NL with 16 home runs in a part-time role, still stings. But there’s no longer a gaping hole in left field, even if Ozuna will rely on 2021 Rookie of the Year candidate Christian Pache to cover more ground there than most center fielders are responsible for, assuming the NL doesn't adopt the designated hitter this year.
This is a move the Braves had to make to maintain favorite status in the stacked NL East. Atlanta accomplished a lot in 2020, snapping a streak of 10 straight postseason series losses and putting the club in a position to have three chances to beat the Dodgers to advance to the World Series. But a lot has changed over the last few months.
The Mets acquired Francisco Lindor and James McCann while reshaping their rotation behind Jacob deGrom. Philadelphia retained J.T. Realmuto and added a closer in Archie Bradley, who should anchor a bullpen that has nowhere to go but up. It’d surprise no one if the Nationals shook off their World Series hangover, especially after adding Josh Bell, Brad Hand and Kyle Schwarber. And what if Miami’s young arms prove they’re capable of repeating their collective breakout campaign? Elsewhere in the Senior Circuit, the Dodgers and Padres are in an alarming arms race, and the Cardinals, who always seem to get the better of Atlanta in the playoffs, added Nolan Arenado.
With that context, the Braves seem to have done extremely well in waiting out Ozuna’s market and signing him for four years and $65 million, plus a fifth-year club option for $15 million. They signed him for $18 million last offseason and watched him lead the National League in home runs, RBIs and total bases, finish third in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage while providing the best lineup protection Freeman has ever enjoyed—and then extended his stay for a cheaper annual price tag.
The Astros signed Michael Brantley for virtually the same salary of $16 million over two years to play Ozuna’s position (or at least, where Ozuna likely will be playing in 2021). Brantley has compiled 10.5 bWAR over the past five years. Ozuna, who’s more than three years younger, at age 30, has recorded 14.9 bWAR over the same period.
Even though two of Atlanta’s best relievers from last year, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon, are still free agents, the Ozuna reunion may signal the end of Atlanta’s offseason shopping. The Braves are roughly $40 million below what their 2020 payroll was shaping up to be. But, as you may have heard, a global pandemic erased a large chunk of the sport’s revenue. And Liberty Media is a faceless boss that cares about the bottom line above all. Realistically, the best Braves fans can hope for is that they’ll shore up any weaknesses that pop up throughout the season.
But with Ozuna back in the fold, the team’s most glaring hole has been filled. And that’s worth "mixing it up."