The Braves took one of the last high-end free agents off the board when they inked Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18MM contract Tuesday, but the signing looks like a mere consolation prize for the team. After all, the Braves lost a better free agent the previous week when they saw third baseman Josh Donaldson agree to a four-year, $92MM pact with the Twins. The Braves prioritized re-signing Donaldson this offseason, general manager Alex Anthopoulos told Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Jeff Schultz of The Athletic in separate interviews, but they were simply unwilling to meet the Twins’ bid for the 34-year-old.
“I don’t blame him for a minute,” Anthopoulos said of Donaldson’s choice. “It’s a fantastic contract for him. He earned it. Would’ve loved to have him stay a Brave, but we ultimately had to make a decision. We felt like it was best for our club to go to a number and not go beyond that to get it done.”
In the end, the number Donaldson received “went north of where we thought it would be at the start of the offseason,” according to Anthopoulos, who added that “Josh gave us every opportunity to sign him back and every opportunity to get the deal done.” And Donaldson didn’t leave because of any payroll constraints hampering the Braves, per Anthopoulos, who noted the team “could’ve” matched the Twins’ offer. However, the executive just wasn’t comfortable doing so.
So now what for the Braves? Well, barring an unexpected trade for the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado or the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, it appears they’ll turn to Johan Camargo and Austin Riley – two third basemen who struggled last season – to pick up the slack at the hot corner. When they were trying to re-sign Donaldson, they were “also weighing the possibility that we would be blocking Riley or blocking Camargo from playing third base. That presents its own challenges,” Anthopoulos stated.
It’s anyone’s guess what the Braves will get from Camargo and Riley in 2020, but the addition of Ozuna should help cover for the loss of Donaldson’s offense to some extent. Anthopoulos acknowledged the Braves “likely” wouldn’t have signed Ozuna had they convinced Donaldson to come back, but Ozuna is nonetheless someone who excites the club. They believe Ozuna has untapped potential.
“Because of his stat line last year, we felt he was an undervalued player. We felt he was better than his .240 average and 29 home runs,” Anthopoulos said of Ozuna, who – for what it’s worth – was a Statcast darling in 2019. The 29-year-old ranked in the majors’ upper echelon in average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and expected weighted on-base average, to name a few key metrics.
Does the Ozuna acquisition mean the Braves will part with one of their outfielders (say, Ender Inciarte)? “I don’t think so,” Anthopoulos observed, noting there’s more room for extra options now that the league’s moving from a 25-man to a 26-man roster, and that “too many good players” is a high-class problem.
Elsewhere on their roster, the Braves made a noteworthy move earlier this offseason when they picked up left-hander Cole Hamels on a one-year, $18MM guarantee of his own. Now, although Anthopoulos opined that a team’s “never comfortable” with its rotation, he’s hopeful that “we can have one of our young guys or two take a step, like last year with (Max) Fried and (Mike) Soroka.”
Hamels, Fried, Soroka and Mike Foltynewicz look like shoo-ins to make up four-fifths of the Braves’ rotation at the start of the season, but the team did try to add another splashy name to the group earlier in the winter.
“We talked to some of the starters who got bigger, longer deals, whether that was (Hyun-Jin) Ryu, (Zack) Wheeler, Bumgarner,” Anthopoulos revealed. “We ultimately chose not to go to the same contract, whether it was length or total value.”
If the Braves’ rotation or some other part of their roster fails during the first few months of the season, perhaps the two-time defending NL East champions will find reinforcements leading up to the summer trade deadline. The Braves are already projected for a franchise-record Opening-Day payroll of $158MM – almost $45MM more than 2019’s season-starting outlay – but there may be more in the coffers. Anthopoulos said he “was given a quick yes” when he asked CEO Terry McGuirk for a spending increase during the prior two summers.