Cardinals: Discussing Marcell Ozuna’s Future

During my commute on Thursday evening, I flipped the radio on to The Fastlane, 101 ESPN’s drive-time show. Greg Amzinger of MLB Network, regular Thursday guest of the show, was on discussing baseball and was presented with the question, “Should or will the Cardinals re-sign Marcell Ozuna?” His answer was that he didn’t think they will, for reasons including potential contract demands and the opportunity to clear the way for Tyler O’Neill or other blocked outfielders. This would lead to discussion on the show, but also got the wheels turning in my head.

I have thought about and occasionally discussed the Ozuna situation to some degree, but with this topic becoming more and more front-of-mind in the fanbase, I felt I needed to dig a little deeper.

How productive has Ozuna been?

How much will or can he reasonably demand in a contract?

What does the replacement look like if the Cardinals do let him walk away?

Ozuna’s Production

In Ozuna’s two seasons with the Cardinals his 5.3 fWAR ranks 57th in baseball, while his 112 wRC+ ranks 67th among 128 qualified hitters.

In fairness, he had a bum shoulder in 2018, and I think we can agree that he is a different player in 2019. This season, his 2.7 fWAR is tied for 56th (he did spend significant time on the IL) and his 122 wRC+ ranks 46th among 145 qualified hitters.

Focusing solely on the wRC+ — which allows us to disregard time missed with injury — Ozuna is barely a Top-50 hitter in baseball. That’s not bad, he is a good hitter, though not necessarily an elite hitter.

For his career, Ozuna averages 3.5 fWAR and 25 HR’s over 650 Plate Appearances, with a .790 OPS.

Personally, I like Ozuna and the power that he can bring to the middle of the lineup and he is generally a known quantity at this point.

Gauging His Market Value

This is where I really had to dig. I went searching for similarly aged players and the contracts they signed at that age. In addition to that, I figured up their fWAR/650 PA’s over the 3 seasons prior to signing the contract. (Normalizing the WAR value over a 650 PA sample allows me to remove any discrepancies due to playing time or time missed with injury, so that the WAR comparisons are apples-to-apples.)

What that allowed me to do was find the most similar players to Ozuna — based on age and recent production — that have signed contracts within the last 4 offseasons. I focused on outfielders, but did expand to other positions in order to find additional age comparisons.

This is the raw list, sorted by WAR:

First of all, there have not been many good 29-year old’s to sign contracts recently.

Moving past that, Ozuna rates pretty well in terms of production leading up to a contract.

Next, I wanted to get an average of the Average Annual Values for all of the players that fell within +/- 0.5 WAR of Ozuna. On the spreadsheet that would be J.D. Martinez, down through A.J. Pollock.

However, I had to eliminate 3 of them due to the nature of the signing. Belt, Crawford, and Calhoun all received contracts prior to being eligible for free agency. Those contracts were extensions signed to buy-out arbitration seasons and 1 or 2 free agent years. They are not direct comparisons to the Ozuna situation and need to be removed for this portion.

That leaves 7 contracts, Martinez, Rasmus, Longoria, Cespedes (2016), Upton (2018), Fowler, and Pollock. The average AAV of those 7 contracts comes to $18.3M. That is a reasonable starting point for Ozuna’s AAV, as it accounts for what has actually been paid out on the market recently.

Now, there are a few things to note.

The most expensive of these contracts, Martinez and Cespedes, came on the heals of career years. In 2017, Martinez was the #3 hitter in baseball in terms of wRC+. In 2015, Cespedes ranked 24th in wRC+ and posted a robust 5.8 fWAR.

Ozuna will head into free agency with a 2019 wRC+ that likely ranks somewhere between 35th and 45th, and a 4.1 WAR pace over 650 PA’s. Once again, good, but not quite to the level of the top money players.

The second thing to note is that Ozuna will be a younger free agent than the players being used. So arbitrarily accounting for Ozuna not being at the top-money level production-wise, but also being younger, I would peg his AAV to land somewhere around $19-19.5M.

So for full contract value, he probably slots in between 3-years/$59M and 5-years/$95M.

Now, will the Cardinals pay that?

I think they would be in the conversation on the 3-year term, but I actually don’t see them going multiple years on Ozuna.

I think the ideal scenario from the team’s standpoint would be for Marcell to accept a Qualify Offer and return on a 1-year deal. That gives them another year with a known-producer, allowing their young outfielders –such as Dylan Carlson — to ascend without necessarily being relied on to produce at a high level immediately.

Would Ozuna accept it?

For awhile, I believe this might even be a likely scenario, as Ozuna seems to express a great desire to stay in St. Louis and stay with Yadi (signed through 2020). He has even fired Scott Boras, known for trying to milk every last dime out of a contract, in favor of hiring Yadi’s representative’s.

But would that desire be enough to forego free agency? On one hand he would be betting on himself to repeat his 2019-level and re-enter free agency in a year with no draft pick compensation tied to him and a 3-4 year contract at $19M-ish AAV still in sight.

Or he risks injury or a bad season that would tank his value in free agency and leave him looking for a cushion deal.

By my math — and this might change when the dust settles on final player salaries for 2019 — the Qualify Offer (average of 125 highest paid players) for the 2019-20 offseason will be around $17.4-$17.5M. This is actually a drop from the $17.9M figure of last year.

Because of contract structure typically being backloaded, $17.5M is probably really close to what Ozuna would earn in year-1 of a free agent contract (with the salary climbing in later years to level out at the $19M AAV). So from a 2020 standpoint, the money is about the same. The question is whether he wants to risk the money on the back end.

Produce and it’s irrelevant, the money will be there. Regress and a cool $40M+ might be missed out on.

This is really intriguing to me, as I think it going either way. Ozuna is the type of guy I could envision taking the chance and signing a QO. We’ll have to see what happens there.

Who Replaces Him If He Walks?

One player that the Cardinals would hope to see step in would be Dylan Carlson. But relying on him to do so would be a big risk to take on their part.

The players most likely to team up with Dexter Fowler and (probably) Harrison Bader in a sans-Ozuna outfield would be Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez.

O’Neill provides the higher potential.

In his brief career, O’Neill has accumulated WAR at a 3.2 WAR/650 rate. To compare, Ozuna’s career WAR/650 is 3.5. O’Neill hit home runs at rate that would give him 32 over 650 PA’s, where Ozuna has career pace of 25 HR per 650 PA’s.

So the overall value does not drop dramatically if they move from Ozuna to O’Neill, and they likely gain a handful of HR’s. If O’Neill can sustain production as a regular.

The big thing with O’Neill is whether or not he can normalize his strikeout-rate as a regular player. It has been very, very high in his brief career (37%), but he has also been subject to sporadic playing time for various reasons. O’Neill would need to have his K% settle in a more manageable 26-27% range, similar to his highest rates in the minors. Baseball logic says that with regular at-bats and more comfort, that kind of progress can happen. However, there is also the potential that his strikeouts bury him as a regular. That is the risk.

The contingency plan, should O’Neill struggle, would be Jose Martinez.

Martinez hasn’t been as good in 2019, but it’s likely that his 2020 falls somewhere between his 2018 and 2019 levels. Essentially, he can hit — his career OPS of .819 pacing Ozuna’s — but isn’t much of a Left Fielder.

You then have the stable of Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, and — ideally — Dylan Carlson with the potential to ascend and displace any of the outfielders ahead of them.

I tend to believe that O’Neill’s upside, the seemingly safe offensive fall-back of Martinez, and the number of young outfielders behind them make the Cardinals comfortable with letting Ozuna walk. Heck, Matt Carpenter may even find his way into the LF mix for 2020, considering how much the team likes Tommy Edman. Edman, obviously, has also been used in the OF.

The potential ceilings of O’Neill or Carlson could sufficiently replace Ozuna, and that is what the Cardinals will sell, but neither is guaranteed to pan out in 2020.

I personally would like to see Ozuna come back and allow O’Neill or Carlson to supplant Bader or Fowler, should their performance warrant it. That is a safer route and makes them a better team overall. The wise move is to have as many, maybe even too many, quality major league players as possible.

I’m just not confident that is the route they will take.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs for the stats, ESPN Free Agent Tracker and Spotrac for contract information.

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