Now that third baseman Josh Donaldson is headed north to the Twins — with a 4-year, $92 million contract in hand — mock trade proposals have begun to come out in droves, as we all attempt to predict what will happen next. Braves’ GM Alex Anthopoulos has already alluded to the fact that he’s certainly not afraid to move some of the organization’s top prospects to fill the team’s needs, which currently include an impact bat either to man third base or play in the outfield; however, today let’s focus on the only two available free agents left on the market that could perhaps move the needle for the Braves, outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos (using FanGraphs for projected deals):
Marcell Ozuna, OF
2019 stats: 130 games, .243 AVG, .804 OPS, 29 HR, 89 RBI 2.6 WAR
Projected deal: 4 years, $70 million
Almost immediately after Donaldson signed Tuesday night, reports began surfacing regarding the Braves’ interest in Ozuna. Between him and Castellanos, the former is easily the better defender in the outfield (though, not quite as sharp as he once was with the Marlins).
Braves do like Marcell Ozuna. It’s believed they at least touched base with Castellanos too, but Ozuna seems more likely. They need middle of order bar to replace Donaldson. Might be easier to go the free agent OF route than fashion blockbuster for superstar 3B Arenado or Bryant.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 15, 2020
Depending on which flavor of defensive metrics you prefer, Ozuna rated anywhere from an average defender in 2019 (0.0 Def WAR) to an above-average one (5.7 UZR), in left field for the Cardinals. Just by the eye test, you notice his range is nowhere near what it was during his Marlins days, but despite some odd misjudgments at the outfield wall last season (like here), he has been plenty respectable with the glove recently. In fact, according to FanGraphs’ UZR metric (a stat I usually go with for defense), Ozuna was the seventh-best outfielder in the National League in 2019 — one spot ahead of Ronald Acuna Jr. and even better than Christian Yelich and Jason Heyward. Now, I’m not necessarily claiming Ozuna is a better defender than Acuna, but it’s apparent he’s at least adequate out there; plus, with some additional help from a Braves’ organization that strongly prioritizes defense, Ozuna could perhaps get even better.
Though defense has been and always will be one of the more central components that make up this Braves’ team, signing Ozuna will primarily be for what he can do at the plate (as will Castellanos). Last season — among all NL outfielders — only three other hitters hit the ball harder (Yelich, Bellinger, Harper), as Ozuna posted a 48.1% hard-hit rate for the Cards. He also finished with the highest pull-rate of any NL outfielder, finishing at 49.5%. Ozuna’s ability to hit the ball extremely hard, coupled with a knack for pulling the ball, makes for the perfect storm when it comes to high home run totals (hence the 29 homers he slugged in 2019). The Braves’ need for a proper cleanup hitter would be satisfied.
Acquiring Ozuna would not only give the Braves a more formidable outfield, effectively replacing the planned Nick Markakis/Adam Duvall platoon, but he would also give the team a bit of major-league outfield surplus to work with come midseason. The Braves could run with an outfield of Ozuna, Inciarte, Acuna for the first half of the year, then perhaps include Inciarte in a trade package to acquire more starting pitching help for the stretch run. With Braves’ top prospect, Cristian Pache, right on the cusp of a big league debut, moving Inciarte would be a minimal hit, while also saving the team money. Speaking of prospects and money, signing Ozuna costs only cash and would allow Anthopoulos to hold on to the organization’s young and valuable talent, enabling him to use them in future trades… or let them continue to develop within the Braves’ system.
Also, perhaps an underrated aspect of Ozuna’s game (and one that’s maybe not as critical), the 29-year-old can still run the bases well, as he tallied 12 stolen bases in 2019 and is projected for a total of seven in 2020. The fact that he would be a No. 4 hitter who can slug but also steal a base when needed gives him a bit more versatility than the next player on this list.
Negatives to signing Ozuna
There’s obviously a lot to like about Ozuna. He fills one critical need for the team (adding a cleanup hitter), while also filling another that hasn’t been discussed enough (scrapping the Markakis/Duvall platoon in 2020). However, the issue comes down to the type of contract Ozuna is currently looking for, which recent reports suggest is still a multi-year deal that pays in the range of $17-18 million per season.
The annual salary shouldn’t cause Anthopoulos pause, but a three or four-year deal very well could, as paying a long-term pact to an outfielder doesn’t seem to fit the Braves’ future plans. Ozuna was a very productive player in 2019, so he deserves to get paid like one, but it will be interesting to see if the Braves are genuinely interested in bringing in an almost-30-year-old to play a position they seem quite set on in terms of the future.
Nicholas Castellanos, OF
2019 stats: 151 games, .289 AVG, .863 OPS, 27 HR, 73 RBI, 2.8 WAR
Projected deal: 4 years, $56 million
Castellanos has always been a household name, but after a remarkable half-season with the Cubs in 2019 (after being traded from the Tigers), his free-agent stock improved tremendously. Even more, it appears the Braves aren’t the only ones currently interested in Castellanos, as on Wednesday, it was relayed that the Rangers are super attracted (and may be much closer to a deal) to bringing the 28-year-old on board.
If the Rangers add another big bat…. it seems that Nicholas Castellanos is their target….. Arenado trade seems unlikely….Marcel Ozuna doesn't appear to be high on their list….. Still seems that Castellanos could happen before this is all over….
— TR Sullivan (@Sullivan_Ranger) January 15, 2020
The bad rap Castellanos gets for his defense could arguably be glossed over somewhat, considering there is evidence that he has recently improved in that area of his game; though the numbers are rather stark: using FG’s UZR metric again, Castellanos’ negative-4.4 UZR in 2019 was the 11th-worst mark in the majors, among all positions except catcher. Granted, you can look at that horrid ranking in a few different ways, considering last season the Braves’ Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman finished even worse than Castellanos in that regard, with -6.4 and -4.5, respectively; and we know by the eye test that Swanson and Freeman were just fine at their respective positions. A lot of these defensive metrics take into account the player’s position, as well as shifts, though UZR does not include the latter of those two… which does sort of water-down the stat somewhat. Regardless, the narrative surrounding Castellanos’ glove isn’t just some made-up story for click-bait; it is a real thing, but it’s unknown just how severe his current inadequacies on defense really are.
Moving on to the selling-point that teams care about when it comes to Castellanos, his bat has never been better. Over the last two seasons, no player has more doubles than Castellanos, as the outfielder has managed 104 two-baggers combined from 2018-19, including a league-leading 58 last season. Since 2014, Castellanos has averaged 38 doubles per season, with his total of 229 tying Boston’s Mookie Betts for the most in the majors over that span. Simply put, you can pretty much guarantee he’s good for 35-40 doubles in 2020.
In terms of homers, it doesn’t get much closer when it comes to comparing Castellanos and Ozuna above, as both outfielders have averaged a very similar home run total over the last four seasons (Castellanos: avg. 24 per season / Ozuna: avg. 28 per season). Castellanos didn’t hit the ball quite as hard as Ozuna in 2019 (42.7% hard-hit rate), but as recent as 2018, the former finished with a career-high 47.9%, slugging 23 homers and knocking in 89 runs for the Tigers.
It’s safe to say that both players offer about the same capabilities when it comes to providing an impact bat in the No. 4 hole of a lineup; although, if you’re a believer in the effects of park-factors, it’s quite reasonable to expect a lot of Castellanos’ doubles turning into more home runs once playing in a more batter-friendly stadium. Regarding that point,
SunTrust Truist Park last season ranked dead-average in terms of HR factor (1.018), with Comerica Park (Tigers) as the 10-best for homers (1.086) and Wrigley Field (Cubs) ranked just No. 22 (0.871). Playing in Atlanta should help Castellanos, compared to his time with the Cubs, though according to the metrics, that’s not necessarily the case relative to when he was playing with the Tigers. Regardless, expect some big offensive numbers with Castellanos in the Braves’ lineup.
Negatives to signing Castellanos
Like Ozuna above, though to a somewhat lesser extent, the Braves will have to decide if a three or four-year deal lines up with the team’s future plans. Castellanos isn’t expected to command quite as much as Ozuna, with his AAV (average annual value) approaching the $14-15 million range, but the former is just as interested in landing a long-term contract as the latter.
Also, while it’s perhaps unwise to simply write off Castellanos for his lacking defense, his problems with the glove must be taken into consideration. The last thing Anthopoulos wants to do is sign a player that’s already well-known for his poor defense, just for that player to cost the Braves games in the future. Could you imagine the uproar by Braves’ fans if Castellanos became unplayable due to too many errors in the field? Talk about an “I told you so moment.”
Both players would make the Braves a better team in 2020, but the glaring question is, are they the right fit?
With pitchers and catchers due to report in just one month, it’ll be interesting to see which direction Anthopoulos goes to fill the team’s remaining holes. Listening to David O’Brien and Eric O’Flaherty’s latest podcast episode at The Athletic, the two feel it’s imperative that Anthopoulos completes the roster before Spring Training — and I tend to agree.
If it were a spot in the rotation or bullpen or even a position-player that was expected to contribute in a less meaningful way, I’d say there’s no rush to finish out the roster. However, a missing cleanup hitter will dramatically deprive the Braves’ lineup, not to mention possibly cause more problems.
We know manager Brian Snitker is keen to moving Acuna from the leadoff spot to cleanup, and even though the talented outfielder can still produce while batting fourth, I think we’d all rather he stay where he is. But without a true cleanup hitter, Snitker won’t have many options as the lineup currently stands, which means he’ll have to make the best with what he’s given. Hopefully, Anthopoulos will give him a little more to work with very soon.