By Dan Schlossberg
The World Champions have a perplexing problem.
Marcell Ozuna is back after missing most of last year, first after fracturing two fingers with a foolish head-first slide into Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers and then after allegedly trying to choke wife Genesis just days later — with his arm in a sling.
Ozuna was hit with an array of domestic battery charges that could have cost him 20 years in jail but got virtually all of them dropped by agreeing to complete courses designed to prevent any resurrence. He also agreed to stay away from wife Genesis, who was once charged with domestic violence against him — for cutting his face with a soap dish she threw at his face (Mrs. Ozuna has a better throwing arm than her husband).
Major League Baseball, after an investigation of its own, slapped Ozuna on the wrist, imposing a 20-game suspension and using time served to deduct 20 days of pay from the player’s 2021 contract even though he was on “administrative leave.”
That brings us to 2022. Ozuna is about to begin the second year of a four-year, $64 million contract that contains a $16 million club option. It doesn’t have a no-trade clause but who would want an outfielder who throws a punch better than he throws a baseball?
Do the Braves — a team that prides itself on clubhouse chemistry — even want him back?
Voiding his contract, presumably on the grounds he violated its “character clause,” would certainly trigger a grievance from the Players Association.
Yet bringing him back could be even more difficult.
If the new Basic Agreement makes the designated hitter universal, as expected, Ozuna could return to the DH role he filled so well during the virus-shortened 60-game season of 2020. That was the year he led the National League with 18 home runs, 56 runs batted in, and 145 total bases while batting behind eventual MVP Freddie Freeman in the Atlanta lineup.
In his best year, 2017, Ozuna had a .312 average, 37 homers, and 124 runs batted in for the Miami Marlins while playing a home park not conducive to the long ball.
At age 31, the 6’1”, 225-pound right-handed slugger could produce such numbers again, especially sandwiched between Freeman and perhaps Eddie Rosario in the Atlanta lineup — assuming the Braves keep Freeman and Rosario from leaving as free agents.
With Ozuna as the DH and MVP candidate Ronald Acuña, Jr. just about ready to return from the torn ACL that idled him after July 10, the Braves will be adding two tremendous righthanded power-hitters to a lineup that finished just two homers short of leading the league last year (only the Giants hit more).
The return of the DH, used only in 2020 in the National League, would also shield Ozuna’s pop-gun arm from over-exposure in left field and allow manager Brian Snitker to deploy an outfield of Eddie Rosario, Duvall, and Acuña from left to right. There’s even a chance Cristian Pache, a defensive whiz, will get another shot in center, making Duvall, a 2021 Gold Glove winner who succeeded Ozuna as the RBI king of the National League, a platoon partner for Rosario or a swing man who can play any outfield position.
Then there’s World Series MVP Jorge Soler, like Rosario an unrestricted free agent but someone whose power and personality did more for Atlanta in 2021 than Ozuna’s did in 2020. And in baseball, it’s what you’ve done lately that counts the most.
When the lockout ends, the top priority of Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos will be signing Freeman. But his next immediate need will be resolving the composition of his outfield. With Ozuna the likely DH, Acuña, once he’s ready, is the only sure outfield starter at this point in time.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for forbes.com, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Latino Sports, Ball Nine, Here’s The Pitch, and others. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.