PHOTO: Aug 11, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna (23) and center fielder Lane Thomas (35) and right fielder Dexter Fowler (25) celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
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Tuesday evening, in the midst of the reaction to Derek Jeter’s non-unanimous HOF election and the excitement of Larry Walker surpassing the 75% threshold in his final chance, Jeff Passan of ESPN dropped some free agent news. News that vicariously pertained to the Cardinals.
Marcell Ozuna had signed with the Atlanta Braves on a 1-year, $18 Million contract.
Forgive me for not being upset about this.
Early on in the offseason, I had moved on from Ozuna. I had little to no interest in the team bringing him back. The Cardinals manager held the opposite opinion, as he was quoted multiple times — and I’ll paraphrase and consolidate here — as saying that while he wasn’t officially on the team, he wasn’t anywhere else, and so he didn’t view him — or his production — as gone.
I am a big fan of Mike Shildt, but I was mildly annoyed each time I heard him lobby for this return.
But that’s in the past, as Ozuna is now officially gone.
A number of fans on social media are very concerned — and have been all offseason — about removing Ozuna’s production from a lineup that struggled for most of the season and was nearly no-hit on multiple occasions in the NLCS. That’s what I came to write about.
Look, I understand the concern. I just don’t agree with it.
Marcell Just Wasn’t That Good
Ozuna is a fine player, above average with a relatively predictable floor of production. Taking a known quantity from the lineup and replacing it with an unknown can be frightening, but we are a fanbase that has consistently harped on the Cardinals for allowing average-to-slightly-above-average players to get guaranteed contracts and playing time. We complain when such players block a younger, more exciting option.
Ozuna was that type of player.
Over his 2 season’s with the Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna’s combined fWAR of 5.4 ranked T-73rd in baseball (players with min. 100 PA). Harrison Bader matched that 5.4 fWAR across 2018-19. Now, Ozuna’s WAR was driven by offense while Bader’s was by defense, yes. But their overall value ended up the same.
In the last 2 years, out of 318 players with at least 500 plate appearances, Ozuna’s 108 wRC+ ranked 129th. Middle of the pack.
Compare two stat lines:
A: 108 wRC+, .332 wOBA, .779 OPS, .263 AVG, 51.9 XBH per 650 PA, 19.0% K%, 8.5% BB%
B: 107 wRC+, .327 wOBA, .778 OPS, .260 AVG, 51.3 XBH per 650 PA, 22.4% K%, 12.6% BB%
These are stunningly similar lines — right down to the rate of extra-base hits — with the only real separation being some give-and-take on the strikeouts and walks.
A is Ozuna’s averages over 2 years with the Cardinals.
B is Dexter Fowler’s career averages.
I’m not saying they are the same player/hitter in 2020. They are not. But it’s probably closer than you thought. Ozuna, of course, has upside — evidenced by his 2017 season — that Fowler simply does not.
However, 2017 has shown itself to be an outlier. From 2013-2016, Ozuna had a 104 wRC+, .322 wOBA, and .741 OPS. While those aren’t as good as his 2018-19 numbers, they aren’t that far away. And they are nowhere near the 143, .388, .924 figures, respectively, that he posted in 2017. His career says he is the player we have seen the last two seasons and that’s what is fair to expect going forward.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RBI’S?!”
That is a recurring sentiment among those with angst over losing him. Yes, he drove in 89 runs in 2019, 2nd on the team. A large part of that is because he had an unearned choke-hold on the #4 spot in the lineup.
Consider that 45 hitters took at least 150 plate appearances in the cleanup spot in 2019. Ozuna’s 110 wRC+ ranked 22nd and his .805 OPS ranked 23rd.
Among 33 cleanup hitters with at least 50 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Ozuna’s 11 wRC+ and .818 OPS both ranked 25th, his .231 batting average was 27th, and his 26.3 K% with RISP was the 4th highest among those 33 cleanup hitters.
What I’m saying is, he wasn’t a very good cleanup hitter, relative to other cleanup hitters. He accumulated RBI’s because of the ample opportunities given to him, not because he is more productive others. Dexter Fowler drove in 67 runs last season while bouncing around the lineup and spending almost 1/3 of the year as the leadoff hitter. Had he been planted at #4 all year with the same number of runners on base as Ozuna, he too could have driven in 89 runs. RBI is an accounting stat that relies on opportunity, not a skill.
Hey look, we’ve come full circle with the Fowler comparison.
In bringing back Ozuna, the team would end up with a “two wrongs don’t make a right” situation. Fowler is here, under contract with full no-trade protection, for 2 more seasons. It is what it is, at this point. He can be a productive player, even if only slightly above-average. As I showed, Ozuna’s production is not far off from a career-average year from Fowler. Guess what? In 2019, Fowler was turning 10 outs into singles away from being dead-on his career stat line, I would expect him to be in that ballpark again.
So my point is: Why be redundant? It would have been a mistake to lock Ozuna and Fowler into the same outfield for another year. One of them is fine, but not both — providing a similar bottom-line offensive value, and blocking 2 outfield spots from younger (possibly better) players.
Which leads me to…
The time is now to find out what you have
In Tyler O’Neill. In Lane Thomas. In the outfield version of Tommy Edman. And, ultimately, in top prospect Dylan Carlson.
When Ozuna hit the IL in mid-season, O’Neill filled in with 97 plate appearances over 25 games from June 29th through July 31st. He posted a slash line of .286/.330/.451 with a wRC+ of 106 and 7 XBH’s that rate out to 46.9/650 PA. (Yes, he struck out 28.9% of the time.) The overall production was on-par, or very close, to that of Ozuna during this small sample.
Durability has been a concern with O’Neill, as he’s wound up on the IL each of the last two years. But given health and playing time, he would seem to be able to match anything lost from Ozuna. We don’t know for sure if he will do so, but bringing back Ozuna would have brought on Year-3 of not finding out what they have in O’Neill, and edging closer to wasting a high-upside asset.
Last season fans hollered for Randy Arozarena and Lane Thomas to get a chance to play. Randy has been traded, but Thomas remains and will have a shot at some significant playing time, even if it’s just in a 4th OF capacity. Had Ozuna returned, Thomas would have been pushed down the depth chart and again fans would have — at some point — clamored for him to get a shot.
Matt Carpenter is pegged as the starter at 3B and I, for one, believe he will have a bounce back season. Edman will get his time on the infield, but if he continues doing what he did in 2019, the outfield will be a place to get him additional AB’s. Without Ozuna, he can be worked into the mix and the other young OF’s can still get their chances. With Ozuna, that becomes extremely crowded — because Ozuna is locked as a starter, inflexible.
I haven’t even mentioned Justin Williams and newcomer Austin Dean and the possibility that they may make some noise and earn some looks.
And finally, there is Dylan Carlson. The Cardinals lack of aggression in pursuing Ozuna doesn’t seem like an accident. They weren’t just lowballing him on a 1-year offer to pinch pennies. They were keeping the runway clear for the cast of young outfielders, especially — maybe specifically — Mr. Carlson. He might force his way into the lineup from Day 1, or they may let O’Neill and Thomas play out for a while to see what they have before making the move with Carlson. Either way, he arrives this season and the lack of Ozuna as an outfield fixture further opens up the opportunity.
I know that none of these guys bring the proven production that Ozuna would. But these are exciting young bats. In the cases of O’Neill and Carlson, these guys have been nationally touted prospects, not just guys that the Cardinals are hyping internally. Between the full crew — but especially O’Neill and Carlson — I expect someone to duplicate, if not exceed the production of Marcell Ozuna.
My opinion, obviously.
I was originally going to include a section pumping up the value of the draft pick compensation the Cardinals will receive for losing Ozuna. After all, notable players acquired via free agent comp picks include Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Dylan Carlson (Beltran, Heyward, Lackey).
However, times have changed with the new CBA, which I had forgotten until re-educating myself today. The mentioned players were comp picks that immediately followed the 1st round, that was standard for all teams losing free agents in the old system. The new system takes financials into account and so the compensation varies depending on luxury tax status, revenue sharing, or lack of both. For a team like the Cardinals — and the majority of teams — that are neither spending over the luxury tax threshold, nor receiving revenue sharing, they receive a compensation pick following the 2nd Round. This was the same system that netted the Cardinals the #76 overall pick as compensation for losing Lance Lynn in 2018. They took power hitting prospect Luken Baker with that pick.
A pick in the 70’s is not nearly as valuable or exciting as the ones in the 30’s that netted the Flaherty, Hudson, Carlson trio. So I won’t make a big deal about this aspect. It’s just a small bonus.
I did feel that providing this explanation was worth including, and if you don’t know how this compensation works, the complete rundown is available here.
All in all, Ozuna was a player that held a lot of intrigue. He is a Statcast darling as far as making hard contact and you’ll often hear about “bad luck” in regards to him. However, he’s been around for awhile and eventually you are what you are. To me, he has shown what can be expected from him and it isn’t as impactful as a player with an $18M salary should be. I would rather find out what the youth can do than circle back on a player that has largely played a complementary role for 2 years, rather than elevating the team, as he was acquired to do.
The more I dug into his numbers, the less I liked him and the more I wanted to see the team go a different direction. I’m glad that they have.
Thanks for reading.