Braves bring back Marcell Ozuna on 4-year, $65 million deal

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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ATLANTA — Marcell Ozuna is returning to Atlanta, with or without the designated hitter.

The Braves reclaimed Ozuna’s power bat for the middle of their lineup on Friday night by signing the slugger to a $65 million, four-year contract.

Atlanta announced the deal for the 2020 National League home run and RBI leader less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers are set to report for spring training.

Ozuna gets $12 million this year, $16 million in 2022 and $18 million in each of the final two seasons. The deal includes a fifth-year club option for $16 million with a $1 million buyout. Ozuna will donate 1% of salary each season to the Braves’ charitable branch.

The Braves made the major commitment to Ozuna despite having no assurance there will be a DH 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!”

The 30-year-old Ozuna signed an $18 million, one-year free agent deal with Atlanta last year, and then put together his best offensive season during the pandemic-shortened campaign. He batted .338 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs, narrowly missing out on a Triple Crown. He started all 60 games, posting a career-best 1.067 OPS and finishing sixth in NL MVP voting.

“It’s a year we won’t ever forget but now it’s all about 162!” Ozua wrote. “It’s about Winning!!”

Ozuna invigorated the Braves with his various celebrations, which included the “mix it up” twirling of his hands after big hits and taking a “selfie” of himself rounding the bases after a homer in the NL wild card series.

“My power came because I’m healthy,” he said after the season. “I just came ready and give my best to my teammates and let’s go play.”

Ozuna was respected and liked by teammates, including Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies.

“I’m a guy that’s got a couple years in the big leagues and they give much respect to me and I give respect to them,” Ozuna said. “We have respect together. We have success. It’s not because they are Latin guys. It’s because they are my teammates.”

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.

With Ozuna locked in, Atlanta will return essentially the same lineup that finished second in the majors with 348 runs last year – one behind the World Series champion Dodgers. The Braves have also added to the rotation by signing veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.

Smyly, a left-hander, signed a one-year, $11 million deal. Morton, a right-hander, signed for one year at $15 million.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.