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Starting Nine: It’s clear current course with Marcell Ozuna isn’t working

Ozuna continues to struggle, with lowest production of any DH and contract that runs through 2024

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
Since the star of 2021, Marcell Ozuna has the third worst fWAR (minus-1.4) in baseball.
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

1. Clear current course with Ozuna isn’t working

An albatross of a contract, and an unexpected exit strategy.

That’s what is playing out in Chicago, where Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday that the club is moving on from Jason Heyward, despite his having another year at $22 million on his contract. They would rather release him, knowing the market for his services at his current pay rate is exceptionally thin, and accept that they’ll be on the hook for the brunt of that balance due.

That sound you hear is Braves Twitter feverishly tapping at its keyboard, hoping for a similar ejection from its Marcell Ozuna situation.

Chicago’s reasoning is to get more playing time for younger players, but at its core it’s a decision wrapped around a hitter that’s not producing.

Ozuna’s three-run home run Wednesday in Boston snapped a 0-for-21 skid, a low-water mark for a season in which he’s hit .213/.264/.395 with 20 homers, a 79 wRC+ and the second worst fWAR (minus-1.0) of any qualified hitter. Only 10 players have a lower wRC+ than Ozuna, but none of them are primarily designated hitters, and his defensive limitations have played out with the fourth worst Defensive Runs Above Average (minus-11.7) among outfielders despite his seeing just 349 innings.

Ozuna’s 2020 was magic, as he led the National League in home runs and RBI, but since the star of 2021, he has the third worst fWAR (minus-1.4) in baseball. The only players worse are a Hall of Famer closing out his career in the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera (minus-1.6) and a defensive specialist in Jackie Bradley Jr. (-minus 2.0).

That period since signing his four-year, $65 million contract came with its outside issues — an arrest for domestic violence and suspension that kept him away while the Braves won the World Series — but his 162-game average these past two seasons is a .213/.272/.378 slash line with 19 doubles, 26 home runs, 146 strikeouts and 46 walks.

The Braves reportedly explored moving Ozuna — who is due $16 million next year and in 2024, with a club option for 2025 — ahead of last week’s trade deadline. They had a conversation with the Marlins that included Avisail Garcia (69 wRC+, minus-0.2 fWAR) in what would have been a contract swap, with Garcia drawing $12 million each of the next three seasons, with a $12 million team option in 2026. The talks never reached the point of an actual proposal but engaging in discussions that would have eventually meant taking on more years and more money for a player who has hit above league average once in the last four 162-game seasons shows there’s a desire to move on.

It’s clear the current course isn’t working. Hitting the eject button to the force of the Cubs and Heyward may not be how this plays out, but there’s no question Ozuna has struggled.

Yet he’s still getting at-bats, with the fourth most plate appearances of any primary designated hitter (436) and leading to the Braves to a .309 wOBA that is 19th at the position. Only Matt Olson (492), Austin Riley (478) and Dansby Swanson (474) have more PAs, and Ozuna’s wRC+ is the lowest of any Atlanta player with more than 100 PAs.

The Braves have added another option with Robbie Grossman, and with a healthy Eddie Rosario and the rise of William Contreras there’s a litany of choices, especially when Travis d’Arnaud returns from his leg injury.

Ozuna is still a valuable bat with prolific power, but the reality is moments like Wednesday’s mammoth shot over Green Monster — a blast that came off the bat at 106.8 mph in traveling 403 feet — have been few and far between, and it’s what has happened in between that’s the issue.

Ozuna has had five stretches of 28 or more plate appearances without a homer — including one of 92 from April 18-May 13 — and hit .214 or lower in all of them, and .188 or lower in four of those droughts.

It’s a problem, and the Braves are in need of a solution.

Elsewhere around Braves Country ...

2. Ronald Acuña Jr. taking off

The Slide, as we should collectively call it, as Ronald Acuña Jr. — with some air traffic controller work from Michael Harris II — scored from second in Tuesday’s 11-inning win over the Red Sox, was epic.

You can expect to see that highlight for years to come, and it was the exclamation point of a week in which Acuña has shown the kind of spark everyone’s been waiting for him to consistently provide.

In July, Acuña had a 74 wRC+, the lowest he’s produced in any full month in which he’s played. All he’s done in the past seven days is homer (his first since July 8) as part of an eight-hit series vs. the Mets (a season high), while also stealing a home run away from New York’s Pete Alonso, and he got three hits in Tuesday’s extra-inning win with his 24th stolen base.

We’ve a while to go in August, but at 166 wRC+, this is trending toward being Acuña’s best month of the season.

3. Austin Riley’s ridiculous pace

We’re really getting to the point where a portion of this column each week needs to just be called In Awe of Austin Riley.

File this under that heading, as Tuesday he became the fastest player in Braves history to reach 30 homers and 30 doubles, doing so in 109 games, two faster than Hank Aaron in 1959.

Riley is on pace for 44 home runs, 49 doubles and 109 RBI. That stat line has been equaled or bested just five times in history with Albert Pujols in 2004, Todd Helton in 2001, Albert Belle in 1995, Juan Gonzalez in 1998 and Lou Gehrig in 1927.

There’s only been one season in Braves history with at least 40 home runs and 40 doubles: Chipper Jones in his MVP season of 1999, when he hit 45 HRs with 41 doubles.

4. Vaughn Grissom keeps the top prospect parade coming

The Braves just keep working the rookie magic. Spencer Strider is tied with the Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez for the overall fWAR lead (3.1), Michael Harris II tops all NL rookie position players (2.3), and newly minted top-ranked prospect Vaughn Grissom debuts by smashing a two-run homer in Fenway Park.

It’s not supposed to be this seamless, but youth keeps embracing its youth movement, as Grissom was called up Wednesday to help what’s been some of the league’s worst production at second base since Ozzie Albies fractured his foot June 13.

All he did in that debut was go out and become the youngest player in AL/NL history to homer and steal a base in his first game.

Grissom — like Harris, bypassed Triple-A — was raking for Double-A Mississippi, hitting .363/.408/.516 with three homers, three doubles and a triple in 91 at-bats over 22 games. He’s had limited time at second base, playing one game there for Mississippi and 19 in his 227 games in the minors, though the consensus is the arm plays better at second than his primary position of shortstop.

His promotion is unconventional decision-making, though it’s a move the Braves were pressed into with Orlando Arcia landing on the injured list with a hamstring injury. But the continually ability to catch lightning in a bottle with rookies figures to be one of the lasting storylines to come out of the Braves’ 2022 season.

The back end of the rotation needed consistency and Strider stepped in, the lineup and defense needed a stabilizer and Harris provided it. Post-Albies, the Braves are 25th in fWAR (minus-0.1) at second base of six teams to be in the negatives in that category.

Is Grissom that answer until Albies returns?

Regardless, his being in the bigs is a statement in its own right. The Braves now have their preseason (Harris) and midseason (Grissom) No. 1 in the majors in the same year.

5. Baseball’s best bullpen just got deeper

For the first time since 2020, Kirby Yates was on a big-league mound, entering with two outs Wednesday vs. the Red Sox to fully complete his return from Tommy John surgery. He got Xander Bogaerts to pop out on a 3-1 four-seam fastball, the 35-year-old Yates reaching 92 mph on three of his five pitches.

He may not be the Yates that led the NL with 41 saves in 2019, when he pitched to a 1.19 ERA in 60 appearances but consider the depth of the Braves bullpen.

They have the league’s saves leader since 2017 in Kenley Jansen (185), with newly acquired Raisel Iglesias (150) two spots behind him. A.J. Minter is fourth in the NL with a 1.6 fWAR, Tyler Matzek, who had a 1.72 ERA last postseason, is returning to form, and now they add Yates, whose 2.63 ERA the past five seasons ranks ninth, just behind Josh Hader (2.54).

Already leading the majors at 5.4 fWAR, it’s now an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high-leverage arms.

6. The most important stretch of the season?

While the Braves continue their 11-game road trip, which now takes them to Miami for four games beginning Friday, what awaits when they return to Truist Park may end up being the most critical stretch of games they face the remainder of the regular season.

Atlanta will host the Mets for four games August 15-18, then follow that with three games against the Astros. It’s not only the last back-to-back series they have against teams in postseason position, it’s the only consecutive sets against teams currently at or above .500, and it’s amplified by being matchups with two division leaders.

Oh, and the NL East-leading Mets are slated to start Max Scherzer next Wednesday and Jacob deGrom on Thursday, while Justin Verlander is in line for Sunday’s series finale vs. the AL West-leading Astros. That’s just three of the best pitchers of this generation in a five-game stretch.

It’s a gauntlet, and the Braves’ place in the NL East and wild card standings figure to be heavily influenced by what happens over that seven-game stretch.

7. The anniversary of Braves doing right by a legend

On this day in 1968, Braves president Bill Bartholomay righted a wrong for one of the game’s all-time greats.

Satchel Paige was 158 days shy of the five years’ playing time he needed to get to qualify for the MLB pension, and when 29 teams turned the 62-year-old down, Bartholomay saw a chance. Yes, he could help sell tickets with the Braves in just their third year in Atlanta, but it was more than that.

“I jumped all over it, because I just thought it was the right thing to do,” the late Bartholomay, told me in 2015. “I didn’t think of it so much from the standpoint of diversity, I thought it was just the right thing to do.”

So, on Aug. 11, 1968, which was three years after he became the oldest pitcher ever to play in the majors, Paige signed as an assistant trainer and pitching coach.

Paige would never pitch in an official game for the Braves, but he did appear in exhibitions in 1969 for Triple-A Richmond vs. the big-league club and faced none other than Hank Aaron. After going up 0-2 on the future home run king, Paige would get Aaron to line out to third base.

“I didn’t want him to be ducking around line drives and things of this kind,” Bartholomay said of Paige’s outings. “He was some kind of guy, I’ve got to tell you.”

After he reached his 158 required days, Paige left the Braves, and he got that pension, receiving $250 a month.

8. Spahn brings historic drought to an end

No one has reached 300 wins since Randy Johnson in 2009, a drought of 13 years, 67 days, but baseball has been through a long drought in this regard before. On this date in 1961, the longest gap ever between 300-game winners came to an end when Warren Spahn beat the Cubs 2-1.

It had been 20 years and 17 days since the Red Sox’s Lefty Grove won No. 300, as the 40-year-old Spahn — in typical Spahn fashion since he threw 382 career complete games — went the distance, allowing one run on six hits with seven strikeouts and a walk.

“Everybody made such a hullabaloo about it in advance, the newspapers, radio, and television,” Spahn said. “It was such a wild day that by the time I got to the park, I wanted just to get it over with. The game was the kind I always wanted it to be. No fluke, no big scoring game when I would be sitting in the clubhouse at the end. It was low scoring and hard fought.”

Considering active leader Justin Verlander is 59 away and the 39-year-old would need to play at least three more seasons at his career average of 17 wins, there’s a strong chance that the drought Span ended is going to be dwarfed.

9. HBD, Panda

A happy 36th birthday to Pablo Sandoval, who had some moments in a Braves uniform. He hit four pinch-hit home runs over the first 33 games of 2021, was part of the trade with Cleveland that brought future postseason hero Eddie Rosario to Atlanta, and who can forget the Kung Fu Panda putting on a panda head in the dugout to dole out hugs to celebrate home runs?

Sandoval also has the misfortune of having been benched for liking photos on Instagram of — in a potential sign given where his career would take him — an Atlanta-based woman named “diva_legacy” during a 2015 game when he was with the Red Sox.

That comes back into focus with the latest in-game device incident, with the Pirates’ Rodolfo Castro having his cellphone fall out of his picked during a slide into third base Tuesday night. The 23-year-old picked up the device, handing it to third base coach Mike Rebelo.

Give Sandoval credit, he at least wasn’t playing when he had his phone gaffe, though he would later admit he was trolling the IG while going to the bathroom.

But today’s about celebrating. So, HBD Panda.

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