While the rest of the baseball world was distracted by the Hall of Fame announcements, the Atlanta Braves and Marcell Ozuna agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal. While we’ve seen plenty of players go for more than what was predicted this offseason, Ozuna’s contract was shockingly low and yet another reminder of how the qualifying offer adversely affects the market for mid-tier free agents.
The arrangement is eerily similar to the contract signed by Yasmani Grandal ahead of the 2019 season. Grandal likewise rejected a qualifying offer and wound up taking a one-year $18.25 million deal with the Brewers. Things eventually worked out for Grandal as he signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox. If Grandal had signed a five-year, $91.25 million contract last year, he’d be making the same amount of money over the same amount of time, and we wouldn’t be pointing to that contract as an example of the free agent market’s failings.
Still, It’s worrisome that players with qualifying offers extended to them have to take this risk. If Grandal had gotten hurt or slumped in 2019, he would have taken another pillow contract this offseason, and the chances of him ever earning what he deserved when he hit free agency would have decreased. FanGraphs’ crowd-sourced prediction estimated that Ozuna would have earned a four-year, $64 million deal this winter. If Ozuna performs well in 2020, he could still make up the difference next offseason, but if he struggles or gets injured, money he deserved will be withheld from him.
There’s no way that Ozuna would have agreed to a one-year deal if he didn’t have the qualifying offer attached. There’s no telling for certain, but every indication says this was the best offer he got. Ozuna’s 2019 slash line of .243/.330/.474 isn’t eye-popping, but Ozuna also hit into a ton of bad luck. His Statcast numbers combined with his bullish Steamer projections (119 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR) certainly don’t present warning signs—quite the opposite, in fact. Ozuna ranked in 93rd percentile for average exit velocity, 96th for hard hit percentage, 92nd for xwOBA, 86th for xBA, and 91st for xSLG.
From the team’s perspective, there’s nothing not to like about the deal. If Ozuna has a bad year, they’ll be out a few million, their third-round draft pick (they lost their second-round pick by signing Will Smith), and $500,000 of international bonus pool money. A third-round draft pick is far less impactful than a team would have you believe.
For example, the best player taken out of the third-round of the 2011 draft, an otherwise deep pool of talent, is currently Tony Cingrani with 2.6 career rWAR. Rarely, a third-rounder turns into JT Realmuto. Usually, they never make the majors. As for the money, who else but the best outfielder currently on the market were they going to spend that $18 million on?
Like the Brewers before them, the Braves managed to have a solid player fall into their lap because no one wanted to sign him to a multi-year deal and lose out on the chance for a Tony Cingrani of their own. It’s a great signing for Atlanta, and it’s shameful that no other team was willing to beat their offer.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.