Braves: Does Nelson Cruz make sense as a backup plan for Marcell Ozuna?

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Over the weekend, Buster Olney reported that it was unlikely that Marcell Ozuna fits into the Braves financial plans. While he was hypothesizing much more than presenting any actual tangible evidence, it very well may be the case that Ozuna is well out of Atlanta’s price range, forcing them to pivot.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many free-agents available that mimic the kind of production Ozuna gave the Braves last season. Then again, I’m not even sure if Ozuna can put up the numbers he did in 2020, given it was arguably the best 60-game stretch of his career. However, if one guy might be able to give the Braves something similar at a much more affordable price, it is 40-year-old Nelson Cruz.

Yep, you read that right. The six-time All-Star is entering his 17th MLB season, but he’s aged like fine wine. Five of Cruz’s All-Star appearances have come since 2013, and he hit at least 37 homers in every season from 2014-2019 — a number he surely would have reached again in 2020 had it been a full 162-game schedule.

Cruz has been one of the best pure sluggers in the game for over a decade now, but he’s not strictly a power bat. He boasts a respectable career average of .278 and hit over .300 in each of the last two seasons for the Twins, leading to a combined OPS of 1.020. To put that into perspective, prior to last year’s shortened campaign, which led to an OPS of 1.067, Ozuna’s previous high in that category was .924, and for his career, it is barely over .800. Cruz’s is .876, and as I said, he’s only gotten better with age.

So, what’s the catch? Of course, if you’re familiar with Cruz, you should already know where I am going with this. As good as he is with the stick, he’s been a perennial DH for a while now. Cruz hasn’t even played in the field since 2018, when he appeared in the outfield five times. He last played in the field more than five times in a season in 2016. That’s a potential problem, given we aren’t sure if the DH will be in National League next year and the Braves emphasis on defense.

With that being said, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi says both teams in the NL and AL are interested in Cruz.

Now, perhaps clubs are just doing their due diligence in case there is a DH in the National League, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could return to the outfield. It’s not like Marcell Ozuna was a Gold-Glove candidate anyway. He put together the worst defensive year of his career in 2020. Still, he’s significantly better than Cruz was the last time he was playing defense. However, on the flip side, Cruz may put together a much better year plate, averaging things out a bit.

The keys to a potential deal with the former Twins, Mariners, and Rangers slugger will be if he’s even willing to play in the field at this point in his career, and of course, price. If he can blast 40 homers behind Freddie Freeman and will accept a one-year, $18 million contract (what Ozuna signed for last offseason), it’s difficult imagining him not being worth it; it doesn’t matter how poor he is defensively. That would provide the Braves with another ideal stopgap at a manageable price before their top prospects — Cristian Pache and Drew Waters — are ready to become everyday players.

Photo: Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire

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