Arrest Of Marcell Ozuna A Serious Setback In Atlanta Braves Title Chase
In a season that started with the loss of the All-Star Game from Atlanta, the Braves suffered their most serious setback Saturday with the arrest of Marcell Ozuna.
The already-injured outfielder, who suffered two fractured fingers when he slid headfirst at Fenway Park Tuesday, was arrested in Sandy Springs, GA on charges of aggravated assault strangulation and misdemeanor battery – a family violence incident that will trigger and immediate investigation by Major League Baseball.
Suspensions under the six-year-old joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, a cooperative effort of the Office of the Commissioner and the MLB Players Association, vary from two weeks to a full season and are independent of any legal decision.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has the full authority to dole out punishment, though a suspended player may appeal to an arbitration panel.
Even All-Star players are subject to suspension for violating the policy. The list of those banned previously includes Aroldis Chapman (30 games), Addison Russell (80), Roberto Osuna (75) and Jose Reyes (51).
Ozuna would not be paid during a suspension. He is on the first year of a four-year, $65 million contract signed after he led the National League in home runs (18), runs batted in (56), and total bases (145) during the virus-shortened 60-game season of 2020. He has more than $8 million on his guaranteed deal for this year alone.
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First reported by Miles Garrett of WSBT and Jeff Passan of ESPN.com, the arrest comes as a shock to the team and its fans since Ozuna is known for a dugout demeanor that includes hugging, dancing, and celebrating with selfie poses. He was expected to miss at least the next six weeks anyway as the result of the injury he suffered when sliding into Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.
He had been struggling at the plate this year, batting .213 with seven home runs and 26 runs batted in while playing 48 games, all in left field after serving as the team’s designated hitter last year (the universal DH was tried only during the 60-game season as an experiment).
Notified during their game against the New York Mets at CitiField, the Braves issued a statement supporting the Commissioner. Shortly before 9 p.m. EDT, the team said, “We learned of Marcell Ozuna’s arrest earlier this evening and immediately informed the Commissioner’s Office. The Braves fully support Major League Baseball’s policy on domestic violence, which stresses to the fullest that our society cannot and will not tolerate domestic violence in any form. Until the investigation is completed, we will have no further comment and all inquiries into the matter should be referred to the Office of the Commissioner.”
On the field, the Braves seemed flat from the start in their game against the first-place Mets. Held scoreless for the first five innings by Taijuan Walker, they eventually lost, 13-2, as the home team got five home runs – all from players who had not been with New York last year.
Although the Braves lead both leagues in home runs, they have been playing Whack-a-Mole all season with a sputtering offense, erratic starting pitching, and unreliable bullpen.
In addition, they lost expected top starting pitcher Mike Soroka, who needed exploratory surgery to determine the source of pain from his surgically-repaired Achilles; fellow starter Huascar Ynoa, who won four of his first five decisions before breaking his hand when smashing it into the dugout bench in frustration; catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who needed an operation to repair a thumb ligament on his catching hand after a home-plate collision; and much-hyped rookie center fielder Cristian Pache, now back in Triple-A after suffering several injuries.
Ozuna’s injury and likely suspension would be the biggest blow – especially because his powerful right-handed bat provided great protection in the batting order for Freddie Freeman, a left-handed hitter and the reigning Most Valuable Player in the National League. Perhaps concerned about a contract that expires after this season, Freeman is hitting more than 100 points below his .341 final mark of 2020.
The 6-1, 225-pound Ozuna is a two-time All-Star with a pair of Silver Slugger awards. He also has a Gold Glove, though his performance in left field has been hampered by a surgically-repaired throwing arm.
Replacing the 30-year-old Dominican will be difficult without a deal that might cost the Braves several of their best young prospects. Before re-signing Ozuna in February, they reportedly had interest in former MVP Kris Bryant, an outfielder-third baseman whose contract with the Chicago Cubs expires this fall, and Joc Pederson, a former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder who signed a one-year contract with the Cubs just before spring training.
Atlanta also has a blue-chip prospect in switch-hitting Drew Waters, currently on the roster of the Gwinnett Stripers, the top Braves farm team.
For the Braves, seeking their fourth straight title in a highly-competitive National League East, the season got off to an ominous start when Manfred stripped Atlanta of the All-Star Game on April 2, the day after the start of the 2021 campaign. The Commissioner cited player discontent over controversial new Georgia voting laws.
After losing an estimated $100 million because of the shortened season and elimination of game-day revenue last year, the Braves and the city had hoped for a financial windfall from the Midsummer Classic. Atlanta last hosted the game in 2000.
Hurriedly covering the All-Star Game patches worn on their Opening Day uniforms, the Braves lost four in a row to open the season and never managed to get over the .500 mark. Coupled with their defeat in a rain-delayed contest in Boston Wednesday, the Braves have yielded a combined 22 runs in their last two games. As a result, they are 24-26, three-and-a-half games behind the front-running Mets.