Ozuna Back? Platoon? Braves Weigh Options (www.mlb.com)

ATLANTA — Less than two weeks before the start of Spring Training, the Braves are running out of options as they continue to try to replenish their lineup with a power hitter.

Nolan Arenado and Joc Pederson were erased from Atlanta’s wish list as they both found new employers this week. As for

, his potential return to the Braves’ lineup became even more uncertain with the recent revelation that National League teams (at least for now) will not use designated hitters this year.

While updating his status via Instagram on Wednesday, Ozuna indicated he has not heard much from the Braves. That’s not necessarily surprising given the uncertainty of the universal DH being implanted again.

Now, the question is, should the Braves reach a point where they deem Ozuna’s bat valuable enough to compensate for his defensive liabilities?

One of the options discussed over the past couple months had been to platoon the left-handed-hitting Pederson with Adam Duvall or another right-handed-hitting outfielder. The Braves non-tendered Duvall in December, but there does seem to be some lingering hope he’ll end up back in Atlanta for the upcoming season.

But Pederson’s decision to sign a one-year, $7 million deal with the Cubs erased the possibility of that potentially effective platoon. One Major League source said Pederson seemed to have some genuine interest in Atlanta before opting to sign with Chicago.

Speaking of the Cubs, the Braves have made it clear they are not interested in trading for Kris Bryant. But they did talk to the Rockies about Arenado before the third baseman was ultimately traded to the Cardinals.

As the Braves evaluated the possibility of adding Arenado, a significant hindrance was future payrolls, specifically the uncertainty of where it will go beyond this year.

Though the Braves have not revealed a specific number, we know this year’s payroll will be down after sitting at approximately $150 million last year. The team has already committed to pay around $115 million to its current players.

So, even if the payroll were reduced by just $10 million, it’s obvious why the Braves were limited with their pursuit of outfielder George Springer, who recently signed for an average annual value of $25 million via his six-year deal with the Blue Jays.

Still, the Braves were willing to continue discussing the possibility of acquiring the more expensive Arenado, who will draw an annual salary of $35 million through 2024 and then make $74 million over the final three years of his current contract.

But the Braves’ concerns extended beyond how the deal might affect this year’s payroll. They are still hoping to give Freddie Freeman an extension, which presumably would carry an AAV between $27.5-30 million over at least five seasons. Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s salary rises to $15 million in 2022 and then sits at $17 million over each of the four years that follow.

Max Fried, Mike Soroka and other young stars will also start getting more expensive over the next few years. If the Braves’ payroll were to have continued climbing like it was before the pandemic, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

But without knowing where future payrolls will rest, the Braves were at least limited in their attempt to make a long-term commitment to guys like Springer and Arenado.

With the payroll uncertainty, the Braves could benefit from a short-term deal like the ones given to Josh Donaldson and Ozuna over the past two years. They pursued Eddie Rosario, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Indians, and were hopeful to get something done with Pederson.

Maybe the Duvall and Pederson platoon would have created plenty of power. But the Braves’ best option has always been to find a right-handed power hitter to place behind Freeman.

There has been talk about Justin Turner. But it seems likely he stays with the Dodgers.

Switch-hitter José Ramírez is another third baseman who would be a good fit. But the Indians have not yet shown their decision to trade Francisco Lindor was the start of a fire sale.

So, the most pressing question remains: Would Ozuna do enough with his bat to compensate for his glove? The 21 games he played as an outfielder last year were enough to confirm there were better options in the field. To get desired value from him this year, the Braves would have to ask him to play the position closer to 150 times.

Cristian Pache‘s presence in center field could take care of some of Ozuna’s defensive issues. But limited range, combined with weakened arm strength, could prove problematic over the entirety of a normal season.

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