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Starting Nine: Marcell Ozunas’s arrival creates logjam and juggling act in outfield

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Plus, a rosy forecast at third base with Johan Camargo and Austin Riley, Larry Walker giving hope to Andruw Jones’ HOF bid and more.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals
The addition of Marcell Ozuna gives the Braves four outfielders who hit above league average in 2019.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is over — and just in time for this weekend’s Chop Fest at newly dubbed Truist Park — as the Braves finally added their power bat in signing Marcell Ozuna.

On the left fielder’s arrival, whether Brian McCann has an obligation to discuss Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and more in this week’s Starting Nine.

1. With addition of Marcell Ozuna, Brian Snitker has a juggling act on his hands

The Braves have their bat, moving on from Josh Donaldson by inking Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. They also have two everyday outfielders, as general manager Alex Anthopoulos said in Tuesday’s conference call announcing the signing that Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr. are locked in. It’s hard to argue that Atlanta isn’t in a better spot than leaning on a platoon of Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis in left field, and barring an injury, trade or releasing Duvall and his non-guaranteed $3.25 million deal, it seems clear who will be impacted most. Against lefties, Duvall — who had a completely unsustainable 178 wRC+ in 41 games in 2019, but is four percent above league average over his career — is the clear choice over Markakis (71 wRC+ vs. southpaws in ‘19) and Ender Inciarte (79 in his career). When it comes to righties, it’s negligible between Inciarte (100 wRC+ in his career) and Markakis (112 last year) at the plate, but the former gives the Braves a better defensive unit with Inciarte in center and Acuña in right. Anthopoulos said things “will be worked out over the course of the spring,” and noted it’s difficult to think the team gets through spring training without any injury issues. The addition of a 26th man to the roster does allow the Braves to carry an additional outfielder, and if manager Brian Snitker will be utilizing rest to keep players fresh — something that was a major talking point last winter but didn’t come to fruition — there’s an avenue to have this be a deep, potent and rested outfield with four players with wRC+’s above league average in Acuña, Duvall, Markakis and Ozuna and another in Inciarte who was at 143 in an abbreviated second half (and we haven’t even discussed Cristian Pache and Drew Waters yet). But on the surface, it’s a logjam, and given splits and optimum defensive lineups, the playing time of Markakis, a Snitker favorite who has appeared in the sixth-most games in the National League (752) since his arrival in Atlanta in 2015, is poised to take the biggest hit in that group.

2. The reality of Ozuna’s much-maligned defense

The GIF is hard to forget, getting burned into your mind as Ozuna turned Spider-Man, scaling the wall at Busch Stadium on a misjudged ball that ended with him landing on his face at the warning track. But don’t let the <i>America’s Funniest Home Videos</i> moment cloud your judgement about the corner outfielder’s defensive acumen. Last season, Ozuna’s dWAR (minus-0.4) was just behind American League Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon (minus-0.3) and was better than two finalists (Andrew Benintendi and Juan Soto). He had the best UZR/150 (8.6) of any qualified left fielder and was second in DRS with two — and this was a down year for Ozuna after he had 10 DRS in ‘17 and eight in ‘18. Add in Inciarte and Acuña Jr., who was tied for ninth with nine DRS in ‘19 or Duvall and his 17 DRS in ‘18 and 16 in ‘16, and the Braves have the potential to put together an elite defense in the outfield.

3. Painting the picture of a rosy forecast at third base

The Ozuna acquisition beefed up the Braves offense without them taking on any long-term financial obligation, and it didn’t cost them any of their prized prospects. From that end, they could technically still have eyes for the RockiesNolan Arenado, but with Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich saying trade talks are off the table and Arenado disclosing he’s feeling “disrespected” (which has been tied to the team’s inactivity this winter), it feels like it’s ultimately heading toward an ugly end. But for now we have to think a deal with Atlanta isn’t happening any time soon. With the Cubs still waiting to hear whether Kris Bryant’s grievance will make him a free agent, the Braves are all but are resigned to a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley pairing at third base ... and the reality may not be bad. Anthopoulos noted he’s heard positive reports on Camargo getting in shape for the spring and that Riley is working on adjustments to his swing. ZiPS projections have Riley penciled in as a 1.9 fWAR player and Camargo at 1.5, which combined isn’t a world away from the Donaldson (4.9 fWAR via Steamer) and the young Braves are forecasted for 43 homers to Donaldson’s 36. If Ozuna delivers in cleanup and Camargo and Riley can match that projected production, the offense has the potential to outdo last year’s group, which was second in the NL at 26.9 fWAR.

4. No, Brian McCann doesn’t have to comment on Astros scandal

It’s no secret that while he was in a Braves uniform, Brian McCann built a reputation for baring the badge of baseball’s sheriff, Carlos Gomez, Jose Fernandez and Bryce Harper all drawing the catcher’s ire for some perceived variation of a lack of respect for the game. As a member of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros team that’s at the heart of the sign-stealing scandal, the now-retired McCann has remained silent on the matter, and one writer wants to know why, deeming it “hypocritical and downright inexcusable.” But the better question is what’s really to gain from McCann commenting publicly on it at all? Astros owner Tom Crane told the <i>Houston Chronicle</i> that the players will issue an apology in spring training, and whether you accept the validity of a delayed, and seemingly forced act to come, it’s all we’re likely to get from anyone on the subject. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred granted immunity to the players for their testimony in the investigation, and if McCann was one of those interviewed, it means he’s already discussed it with the only party that truly mattered in this case — and it wasn’t the general public. This boils down to one of two things: either you need McCann to say he wasn’t part of it to reaffirm a belief that he was a beacon of baseball integrity, or you’re dying to call him out as a phony. We don’t know — and we may never know — for certain whether McCann went along with the cheating or voiced his concern, and we’re probably going to have to live with that uncertainty. If McCann can live with that as well, and if he doesn’t believe his lone world championship is tainted, then there’s no use in trying to demand otherwise from him.

5. Andruw Jones and HOF announcement

As expected, Monday’s Baseball Hall of Fame announcement has Andruw Jones well away from induction, appearing on 19.4 percent of ballots. It’s a strong jump as the 10-time Gold Glove winner went from 7.3 in 2018, his first year on the ballot, to 7.5 in 2019, and he’s well above the cutoff to remain eligible (five percent), but he also remains in HOF limbo when it comes to trying to make the jump to the needed 75 percent for enshrinement. Larry Walker elected along with Derek Jeter, in the former Expos/Rockies star’s final year on the ballot, made the climb after sitting at 20.3 percent in his first year (2011), but he may offer some hope to Jones. Walker dipped to 10.2 percent in 2014 and was at 11.8 in ‘15 before shooting back up to receive 76.6 percent of the vote with this week’s reveal. Walker made that charge over the last three years of eligibility, a byproduct of voters needing to do a deeper dive into a candidate’s case with players now limited to 10 years on the ballot. With Omar Vizquel mounting his own challenge — up to 52.6 percent in Year 3 for the former shortstop — defense figures to become a bigger talking point and Jones stands there with Vizquel as being the gold standard at their position in their era. Jones has a long way to go, but he’s generating more support and watching another player in Walker make the jump he did at least gives hope that, with seven years left to appear on the ballot, that the former Braves center fielder can still mount a serious push to Cooperstown.

6. King Felix a good story or legit threat to make rotation?

A faded “name” player getting a chance to show out at spring training isn’t anything new. The Braves have been that route of late, bringing in Scott Kazmir and Anibal Sanchez in 2018, Alexi Ogando in ‘16 and Chien-Ming Wang in ‘15, and now they’re adding the biggest name yet to that list, signing Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star Felix Hernandez to a minor-league deal. The 33-year-old right-hander hasn’t been a viable starter in four years, last posting an above league average ERA+ in 2016 (106) and is coming off a year in which he limped through a career-low 15 starts, posting the worst ERA (6.40) of his 15 seasons as he averaged just 90.4 mph on his fastball and his once-dominant changeup resulted in minus-5.2 wCH. Is it going to be anything more than a sideshow at camp? One Braves player told me he still believes there’s some innings left in that arm, and Hernandez will be battling with the likes of Sean Newcomb to claim the fifth spot in the rotation. The aforementioned Sanchez reinvented himself in a Braves uniform as his velocity dipped and considering how great Hernandez’s secondary pitches have been throughout his career, maybe a change of scenery away from the legacy he built in with the Mariners will give him the freedom to try a similar change. With few major storylines at camp, King Felix at least figures to deliver a good one.

7. Nobody spending like NL East in 2020

There isn’t a team in the National League East that’s doling out dollars at quite the clip of the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros, the only three teams that are currently over the $200 million threshold heading into Opening Day, but there also isn’t a division that’s spending in bulk like the East. With the Phillies sixth in MLB at $171.6 million, the Mets eighth at $160.5 and the Braves pushing to a franchise-record $150.8 after adding Ozuna, the East is the only group that has three teams in the top 11. It’s just the fourth time since baseball went to the three-division format in 1994 that the East has had three teams in the top 11, following 2004, 2005 and 2009.

8. A Snowmageddon Tale, From Chipper’s POV

Next week is the six-year anniversary of Snowmageddon, the storm that crippled Atlanta and gave us one of the best buddy moments in recent Braves history — which was immortalized in bobblehead form — when Chipper Jones raced out on his ATV to save a stranded Freddie Freeman. For the upcoming rerelease of my book <i>’Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout,’ on March 3, I spoke to Chipper about the rescue. Here, in part, is his recounting of the night. “It become very apparent that (Freeman) was going to have to either start walking or sleep in the car. I’ve never liked sleeping in the car. You run of gas, it’s going to get awfully cold, so I got a ton hunting stuff that keeps me warm and an ATV. I figured it couldn’t be any more than 7-8 miles there and 7-8 miles back, let’s try and work it out. So I packed a backpack full of stuff for him so he can stay warm on the back of the four-wheeler and I went and got him. It was pretty hairy, driving that ATV on icy roads is not real fun, not to mention having to dodge a bunch of people who are looking for rides themselves. It was pretty scary.” Chipper noted he has 20 of the bobblehead the Braves released in 2016.

9. Former Brave Jerry Blevins place in the new baseball order

Since 2016, only one pitcher has faced two or fewer batters in a game more than lefty Jerry Blevins, who has made 114 such appearances, including 18 last season for the Braves. The 13-year veteran signed a minor-league deal with the Giants this week and the situational lefty’s bid to make the roster figures to be a strong test of the new three-batter minimum that will take effect this season. Blevins limited lefties to a .540 OPS in 2019, while right-handers jumped on him for an .831 OPS and hit four of the five home runs he allowed and under the new rule, 10 of Blevins’ appearances in ‘19 wouldn’t be allowed. The new rule does allow for a reliever to get his team through the end of an inning, so a Blevins could come into a game with two men down to face a lefty, get him out and his work would be done. On a team like the Giants that are in the midst of a rebuild, providing those opportunities and accepting what could happen vs. righties may just be a part of life. Whether Blevins winds up on San Francisco’s roster or any other by Opening Day will give us an indication of what kind of an appetite there is for LOOGYs past.