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No one should be happier about Marcell Ozuna’s return than Freddie Freeman

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With the four-year deal to lock up Ozuna, attention now turns to reaching an extension with the reigning NL MVP

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins
With Marcell Ozuna hitting behind him in 2020, Freddie Freeman’s slash line of .341/.462/.640, 187 wRC+, .456 wOBA and .299 ISO were all career highs. 
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In going from everyday outfielder to designated hitter, Marcell Ozuna showed last season he could easily slide into a different role. Apparently, he can handle another as well: hard-hitting journalist.

During Saturday’s availability to discuss his returning to the Braves on a four-year, $65 million contract, Ozuna broke in as general manager Alex Anthopoulos discussed the ease of the process of bringing the National League’s leader in home runs and RBI back to Atlanta.

“Hey, I’ve got a question,” Ozuna said. “If you thought it was so easy to resign (me), what didn’t you do it after the season was over?

“We’re at Feb. 6,” a surprised Anthopoulos deflected. “Not easy. (Took) a long time ... But as long as we do it by Opening Day.”

Yes, the wait was longer than expected as the DH’s place in the NL in ’21– which is almost certain to return for 2022 if last-minute talks between the league and union can’t return – played its part in pushing this deal into February. But it may well be worth any consternation it caused Braves Country.

No hyperbole, as this just might be the start of the golden age of the No. 3 and 4 hitters since the Braves moved to Atlanta.

The matter of Freddie Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, who is in the final season of his pact, remains, and it would be stunning for the career Brave to have that conversation hang over the 2021 season. But the immediate future is Anthopoulos has guaranteed the kind of protection that had been patchwork amid Freeman’s peak years.

In 2013, the first baseman broke through with his first All-Star season with Justin Upton hitting in front of him, a partnership that lasted two years as Freeman moved from fourth in the order to third in ‘14.

But that was brought to an end the following season with Upton being shipped to the Padres and in ‘15 it was A.J. Pierzynski and Nick Markakis getting the brunt of the time at fourth behind Freeman. Then it was Matt Kemp (‘16 and ‘17), Markakis again (‘18) before Josh Donaldson’s (‘19) one-year gamble gave way to another last season with Ozuna.

Those two years of Upton were the only back-to-back years for Freeman in which he had a hitter behind him (or in ‘13 in front of him) for half a season or more that posted ISOs of .200 or better, with Upton at .201 in ‘13 and .221 in ‘14. It reached its low from ‘15-18 with Pierzynski (.130) and Markakis (.080 and .143), and while Kemp gave a glimpse or being that guy in 2016 over 56 games (.238) he slipped to .187 at year later.

With former American League MVP Donaldson coming in for ’19 and delivering a .262 ISO, .377 and a much-needed power surge with 37 home runs – the most of any No. 4 hitter behind Freeman – the franchise cornerstone responded with a career-high 38 home runs. Then in Freeman’s partnership with Ozuna, the first baseman took it to a completely different level.

The .341/.462/.640 slash line were career highs at every step, as was Freeman’s 187 wRC+, .456 wOBA and .299 ISO as he hit 13 homers in 60 games (a 35-HR pace in a typical 162-game season).

Coupled with Ozuna delivering 18 homers, while hitting .338/.431/.636 with .298 ISO, .444 wOBA and 179 wRC+, it gave the Braves the best combined wRC+ and wOBA of any No. 3 and 4 hitters Atlanta has had during a season since 1966, beating out Gary Sheffield and Chipper Jones in 2003 (152 and .414, respectively).

With the report date for spring training looming and talks of the AL champion Rays making an uncharacteristic push, it appeared the Braves may turn patchwork again in backing up Freeman. But after a pair of one-year deals, they returned Ozuna at an expected and below the average annual market value of $20 million that had been forecasted.

Unsurprisingly, when news of Ozuna’s deal broke, Freeman reached out. He texted his returning teammate, telling him “vamanos.” He also got in touch with his GM.

“Freddie sent me a text,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s very excited because now he gets Marcell to hit behind him (again).”

With Ozuna now set to make $16.25 million across the four years — with a fifth option year at $15 million – and the sweetheart deals Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies signed that combine to add $20 million in payroll in 2022 and $24 million in 2023-25, the Braves have provided themselves with more than enough flexibility to make sure Freeman gets a deal that keeps in Atlanta for the duration of his career.

While aiding a bullpen that still needs a shot in the arm with Shane Greene and Mark Melancon on the free-agent market, Freeman should now become top priority for Anthopoulos, with that guaranteed lineup protection only helping the allure of the staying a Brave.

But asked about any extension, as Freeman enters the last season of the $135-million pact he inked in 2014, the GM opted to add another potential role for his returning slugger.

“In terms of the negotiations, I’m going to get Marcell to do it because he can do it fast and early,” Anthopoulos said, laughing. “In terms of Freddie, we’re going to keep it very, very private. We want to keep him that goes without saying.”