Correcting an Atlanta Braves Mistake

Every organization makes mistakes. Some manifest themselves unexpectedly (e.g., the Tigers trading John Smoltz). Others are seemingly so obvious that they can be spotted all the way from nearby planets (Atlanta signing Melvin/B.J. Upton, Philadelphia inking Ryan Howard).

The difficulty, though, is exactly how organizations deal with such mistakes — particularly if the terms of a contract hamstring the options a front office has available.
Even as this discussion begins, we have word out of Arizona that the Diamondbacks have designated for assignment a player that was a 4-time All-Star, 4-time top 10 Cy Young candidate, and World Series hero.

Madison Bumgarner was never able to get things on track in Phoenix, and the team has chosen to eat the nearly 2 years remaining on his 5-year contract. Numbers from various sources vary, but it appears that they will be responsible for approximately $34.3 million (the pro-rated portion of $23 million this season, plus the entire $14 million due next year).

Atlanta has a similar problem… and their plight is reminiscent of one faced nine seasons ago.

In 2014, Dan Uggla was continuing to struggle mightily at the plate. The decline was precipitous: batting averages dropped from .233 in 2011 to .220 in 2012 and .179 the following season. His OPS+ numbers were marching downward as well.

By the time 2014 rolled around, Uggla was hitting .162 with an OPS+ that had sunk to a career low of 35.

He was almost never a ‘good’ hitter, save for a surprising .287 hitting mark for the Marlins in 2010. But in 2014, even his signature power had abandoned him… just 2 homers.

After snatching him away from the fish, Uggla had signed an extension deal with the Braves: 4 years and $52 million, a deal that ran through 2015… his age 35 season.
But something happened along the way. Some blame eyesight issues. Some blame a concussion (one that led to eye issues). It’s never been definitively known.

It’s hard to put that contract into the category of “deals you knew would be bad”, but the decline in his skills did start happening early on in that period of performance.

Regardless, the Braves held on until the day after the All-Star break that season, and then opted to release him. Ultimately, Atlanta was responsible for roughly $20 million of the remaining dollars after the Giants and Nationals chipped in a few bucks before sending Uggla on his way as well.

Modern Problems

The progress of Marcell Ozuna this season is such that Uggla is looking like an All-Star by comparison. Ozuna is now hitting .083 with a runs-created score of 18 (wRC+… 100 is average) and an OPS of .429.

His fangraphs’ WAR is -0.6… marginally behind only 3 other hitters(?) for the worst in baseball… and all of them have had more plate appearances to rack up more futility numbers.

The only redeeming quality about his trips to the plate have been a 12.7% walk rate and the fact that he randomly ran into a pair of solo homers.

Brian Snitker has to keep running him out there on occasion… not because he’s gotten better, but because there’s zero chance of performance improvement if he doesn’t do so.

It isn’t that Ozuna is especially long in the tooth… he’s 2 years younger than Uggla was at the same stage. But aside from a sneaky-spectacular 2020 season — which got him the 4-year deal that followed — he hasn’t been good.

This was something that apparently sneaked by the analytics team for the Braves… he really wasn’t that good in 2020, either (Fred Owens will have some interesting details on that coming soon over at HouseThatHankBuilt… I won’t steal his thunder).

Since then, of course, Ozuna has continued to look lost at the plate, posting numbers below .230 and .700 for batting and OPS every since. This year, of course: bingo card numbers… “O eighty-three”.

“When?” More Than “If?”

With emerging options like Sam Hilliard (.375), Kevin Pillar (.241), and Eli White (.091) available to complement Eddie Rosario (.188), those figures look even more stark in comparison.

Even White’s current .091 figure looks better simply because he can actually play an outfield defensive position in a competent manner.

The X-factor is likely Michael Harris. His return date will be coming up soon, and that will force the Braves to make a move.

Ozuna, Pillar, and White all hit from the right side. Harris, Rosario, and Hilliard are left-handed hitters. Once Harris returns, it’s evident that one of the right-handers will have to go, but who?

White can be returned to Gwinnett, though such a move feels like the Braves would be simply kicking the Ozuna can down the road. Still, defensive capabilities aside, White hasn’t exactly forced Atlanta’s hand here.

Overall, the performance of the rest of the offense also has allowed Atlanta the luxury of not having to rely upon their LF/DH positions for run-scoring options. But for a club having championship aspirations, that can’t remain the case deep into the Summer months.

If Atlanta were to drop Ozuna today, they would still be responsible for $33.9 million of salary. If that were to happen on July 14… after the All-Star break and just prior to the 92nd game of the year… that number becomes $25.9 million.

It really doesn’t matter when, though: they have to spend the same amount of money over the duration. The rest is just how much of it is considered “dead” money. You could argue that it’s already the case now.

So a DFA/release seems inevitable at some point.

On the Off Leo’s Rocker podcast, I put that over/under date at July 14. My partner-in-opine (Fred Owens) has taken the ‘under’… figuring on something changing by mid-May. I can’t argue that position.

Fred also suggested an interesting alternative: protecting Travis d’Arnaud‘s health by making him the more-or-less permanent DH while retaining Chadwick Tromp as the de facto backup catcher behind Sean Murphy.

That would give Atlanta leave to send Eli White to Gwinnett… and release Ozuna immediately as part of the roster-balancing process.

Regardless how they choose to proceed, change is almost certainly coming. It’s the kind of change made to correct an error, and the kind that needed to strengthen an already-stout roster.

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