ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves are bringing back Marcell Ozuna, signing the slugger to a four-year, $64 million contract.
The Braves announced the deal for the 2020 National League home run and RBI leader on Friday night, less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers are set to report for spring training. The contract includes a fifth-year club option for $16 million that would take it to $80 million with a $1 million buyout, which would yield Ozuna $65 million in guaranteed money.
The Braves made the major commitment to Ozuna despite having no assurance there will be a designated hitter in the NL in 2021. He flourished in the role in 2020, helping the Braves win the NL East and come within one win of advancing to the World Series. The Braves lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series after leading the series 3-1.
Ozuna’s value to the team, in the clubhouse and as lineup protection for 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman, was crucial to the team’s hopes of winning a fourth straight NL East title and making another run for the World Series.
Ozuna, who has played with three teams over the past four seasons, said he was glad to settle down in Atlanta.
“Since I was a kid I would dream about this day,” he wrote on his Instagram account. “The day that I could call a place home. Through ups and downs I’ve maintained my faith in this moment. Today I can officially say I’M BACK!!”
The deal drew immediate approval from Freeman, who posted on his Twitter account, “love this!! Let’s go!”
Ozuna took a gamble on himself after the 2019 season, turning down a $17.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, and signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves in late January. The move paid off handsomely, as the slugger finished sixth in NL MVP voting after leading the league with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs and 145 total bases. He was third in the NL with a career-best .338 batting average and .636 slugging percentage.
The bet? The $17.8 million qualifying offer by the Cardinals would’ve represented 41% of his career earnings to that point.
While considered somewhat of a defensive liability after suffering a shoulder injury in 2018, Ozuna, who turned 30 in November, did see some action in left field for the Braves while playing all 60 games during the pandemic-shortened season. However, most of his at-bats for Atlanta came as the team’s designated hitter, slotted after Freeman in the lineup as the Braves won the NL East title while putting up some of the best offensive numbers in team history.
“My power came because I’m healthy,” Ozuna said after the season. “… I just came ready and give my best to my teammates and let’s go play.”
Ozuna would open the season as Atlanta’s projected starter in left field if the DH is not reinstated.
The NL adopted the DH last year as part of baseball’s health and safety protocols for playing through the pandemic. Ozuna made 39 starts as Atlanta’s primary DH.
Major League Baseball proposed renewing the universal DH in talks with the players’ association last week, but the union rejected the proposal, which also would have delayed the start of the regular season and expanded the postseason field. It’s still possible the sides agree to restore the DH this year, or during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement after this season.
Before joining the Braves, Ozuna spent two seasons with the Cardinals, protecting Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup as they made it back to the playoffs in 2019. Over the past five seasons, including the 60-game season in 2020, Ozuna has hit 130 home runs, making two All-Star Games on the strength of his bat.
Since the start of the 2017 season, Ozuna has 357 RBIs, second only to the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado (384) and just ahead of Freeman (343) among National League players, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In eight MLB seasons, he has a .276 batting average with 166 home runs, 594 RBIs and 505 runs scored for the Marlins, Cardinals and Braves.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.