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Did the Cardinals Make a Mistake Settling for Marcell Ozuna?

The Cards’ biggest offseason acquisition has given them very little so far in terms of production. Does that mean they made a mistake?

Minnesota Twins v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The past offseason was a fascinating one for the Cardinals. Coming off back-to-back playoffless seasons for the first time in a decade, the Redbirds really needed to make a splash. And they did. Or did they? They did. Right?

See, here’s the thing: if you look at the Cards’ roster right now, compared to where it was at this time last year, it’s an almost complete overhaul. We’re going to employ for just a moment a favourite tactic of the screenwriter, and drop a big ol’ flashback right here.

Title Card: ONE YEAR AGO

It was a different time for America. Jazz, hot and cool both, was captivating the youth of the country. Flappers were challenging the morals and assumptions of the patriarchy with their bobbed hair and exposed kneecaps. Watergate had ruined our innocence, making us question everything we knew about our leaders. John Travolta’s star turn in Saturday Night Battlefield Earth was a cultural phenomenon, telling a harrowing story of aliens, thetan levels, and rollerskating danceoffs. And President Supermechadeath Lincoln was preparing to meet the invading morlocks in a final showdown for the fate of humanity.

Editor’s Note: Author may not be entirely accurate on American history. Also, author may be functionally illiterate; still checking on that.

On the 13th of May 2017, the Cardinals played the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. The Redbirds won, 5-3, to move their record to 20-15 on the season. Isn’t that amazing? That for as dynamic and interesting as this club feels, compared to what a miserable slog last season felt like, we can find a date when the two clubs had essentially equivalent records? And not like, both were 3-2 at some point in the season. No, approaching the quarter pole, the 2017 and 2018 Cardinals were in remarkably similar position.

Anyhow, in that game, Aledmys Diaz started at shortstop and hit second. Dexter Fowler was in center, Tommy Pham played left, still less than two weeks into his season. Magneuris Sierra was the starter in right. Matt Carpenter hit third and played at first, while Jedd Gyorko hit fourth and played third. Admittedly, this flashback thing would be more effective if Jhonny Peralta was the starter at third, but he was actually on the disabled list at the time. He would return on the 19th of May, make sporadic starts for not quite another month, and play his final game as a Redbird on the 9th of June. So Jhonny was still a part of the team; he just didn’t start in the particular game I’m flashing back to.

Carlos Martinez made the start — again, would have been more illustrative if it had been Lance Lynn or Mike Leake, but them’s the breaks — and was relieved, in turn, by Matt Bowman, Trevor Rosenthal, and Seung-hwan Oh. (Who, by the way, has been very good for Texas this year so far, which I’m really happy to see. I was concerned his career was just about over when the elbow concerns popped up this past offseason. I’m not going to say I wish the Cards had resigned him, because I definitely think there were very good reasons to steer clear, but I do miss watching him pitch in red.)

So we have a different shortstop, left fielder, center fielder, right fielder, first baseman, setup man, and closer from last year to this year, on the same dates. Now, it’s fair to point out two of the three outfielders are actually the same players, just moved into different spots, but it’s also worth pointing out Magneuris Sierra wasn’t the full-time right fielder, either. Stephen Piscotty was, with Randal Grichuk the primary backup. So the starting right fielder, the backup, and the callup who started in that particular game are all gone one year later.

The starting rotation last season was Carlos-Wacha-Lynn-Leake-Wainwright. Two of those pitchers are still starting fixtures as of today. Waino is still around, yes, but I think we all see what’s really happening there.

What I’m saying is this: from last May to today, there has been an enormous amount of roster churn. And yet, this past offseason still felt to many people like a letdown. Like the Cardinals were not really interested in winning. I personally find that take to be ludicrous; I may get frustrated at times and question whether the Cards are aggressive enough in pursuing moves to improve the club, but I never doubt the overall commitment to winning, just their level of risk aversion.

There were really three major additions to the roster this offseason, at least so far. Yes, there were marginal moves, and Dominic Leone has a chance to be a major addition before it’s all said and done, I think, so long as the nerve thing in his arm isn’t a long-term issue, but for now there are three big moves the Redbirds made. It’s weird that signing a Proven Closer for $14 million isn’t one of the three, but here we are.

1.) Signing Miles Mikolas to bolster the starting rotation.

2.) Trading for Marcell Ozuna to anchor the middle of the lineup.

3.) Signing Bud Norris to add depth to the bullpen mix.

In hindsight, the Norris one is obviously a huge deal, because he’s been both the Cards’ closer and one of the best relievers in baseball so far this season. A 27:3 strikeout to walk ratio in 19.1 innings, eight saves, two holds, no blown saves, and a 2.33 ERA (1.65 FIP!!!), all pretty much speak for themselves. So hey, that’s worked out great.

Miles Mikolas. Wow. Just wow. He’s coming up on 50 innings pitched for the season and has a 2.51 ERA. Now, admittedly, it’s a little strange that he’s been so good while not actually striking out a ton of hitters, but when you’re running a walk rate below 2% you can make it work. It will be interesting to see if he can pitch away from contact a little bit more as the season goes on, with the weather warming and hitters perhaps becoming more dangerous, but maybe this is just what he is. If so, I’ll take it every day and twice on Sundays. Amazing investment.

As for the third investment...well, that’s where we get into tougher territory. Because the Cardinal offense, in general, has been quite bad this year. And a big part of the reason for that is that their big offensive upgrade just hasn’t been an upgrade at all.

If we look at the Cardinals’ listed regulars on Baseball-Reference, we get the following OPS+ numbers, going down the list by position:

104, 128, 71, 129, 61, 79, 176, 51

Okay, now who can spot Tommy Pham in that list?

So what we have, on an average given day, is one sublime hitter, two well-above-average hitters, one average to a little above hitter, and four hitters who are various levels of dreadful. In case you’re wondering, Yadi is the 104, Martinez and DeJong are the guys in the 120s, and Dexter Fowler is the 51. Oof.

Of course, that’s maybe not entirely reflective of how things are on any specific day; for instance, Jedd Gyorko and his 207 OPS+ in <60 plate appearances isn’t included, and Yadi being on the DL right now means the Cards have an even worse hitter in that spot currently. In general, though, on any given day the Redbirds in 2018 are going to have something like three or four near-automatic outs in the lineup.

And unfortunately, one of those is Marcell Ozuna, aka the cleanup hitter the Cards targeted this offseason as the guy to take their offense to the next level.

So the question becomes: was trading for Marcell Ozuna a mistake? Or, maybe more accurate to the way many fans are no doubt feeling: did the Cardinals make a mistake when they “settled” for Ozuna?

I put settled in quotes because, as I’m sure most of you can intuit, I don’t want to indicate that’s necessarily what I personally feel did in making the deal for Ozuna, but I do, honestly, understand how that perception could come through for people. After all, there were a handful of potential offensive upgrades in the outfield the Cards could have picked up this offseason, and they arguably went for the lowest-cost one. So let’s talk about them.

First off, we all know about the Giancarlo Stanton pursuit, and how that whole thing ended. It’s really hard to fault the Cards for not getting Stanton; he used his leverage to get to where he wanted to play most, and short of magically transforming St. Louis into the nation’s largest media market or moving the team to another city, there’s really not much El Birdos could have done to make Stanton change his mind. Maybe one could argue they needed a better sell job, or a better team already, or whatever, but the fact is they could not simply make the deal with Miami to bring Stanton to St. Louis when he wanted to play somewhere else. For the record, Stanton is putting up a 127 wRC+ this season so far; he’s been almost exactly as valuable a hitter as Jose Martinez, albeit one with an absurdly different shape to that production.

Second, there was the free agent route with J.D. Martinez. We know Martinez ultimately went to Boston, and is killing it for the Red Sox in 2018, with a 168 wRC+ and 1.3 wins above replacement in 165 plate appearances. Having been traded, Martinez did not cost a draft pick, and only took money to sign. His contract ended up being for five years and $110 million, though there are so many opt-outs and other associated clauses in the deal that it’s hard to even remember how the whole thing is structured, honestly. The Cards didn’t go hard after Martinez mostly because they’re a National League team, and he’s almost unplayably bad in the outfield (even left field in Boston is a struggle), taking most of his PAs at DH these days.

Third, there’s Christian Yelich, who ended up being dealt to the Brewers for a four-player package that included some true premium talent, well beyond what the Cardinals surrendered to the Marlins for Ozuna. For the record, at the time of the respective deals I felt the Cards made the smarter choice. This season, Yelich has been pretty good, but certainly not great, with a 112 wRC+ in 129 plate appearances. He’s spent a little time on the DL, and while he’s running a .361 BABIP that’s helping drag up his overall production, the peripherals are a little concerning. His walk rate has fallen from 11.5% in 2017 to 9.3% this year, and his strikeouts are up, from 19.7% in ‘17 to 23.3%. His ISO is on a declining trend, from .185 in 2016 to .156 last year to .139 this season, despite having moved from a very tough hitter’s park to a noted launching pad in Milwaukee. He’s played all three outfield positions, with the bulk of his innings coming in left, and he’s looked very good in the corners, less so in center. Which, really, is about what you would expect from him defensively.

And finally, we have Ozuna. The Cardinals pivoted to the talented Dominican after they failed to acquire Giancarlo Stanton, and got a deal done in relatively short order. They gave up four players in the deal: Magneuris Sierra, Sandy Alcantara, righthander Zac Gallen, and minor league lefty Daniel Castano.

It’s probably worth checking on what the Cards actually gave up for Ozuna, though obviously the story on the deal will be written over the next several years, rather than a month and a half. But for the most part, the players the Redbirds sent to Miami have performed poorly so far. Mags Sierra is running a 44 wRC+ in Triple A right now, with a 34:5 strikeout to walk ratio and an .044 ISO. Alcantara hasn’t been bad in the minors this year, running sub-4.00 ERA and FIP numbers, but that’s based mostly on not allowing home runs. He only has a 2:1 K:BB ratio and just isn’t missing a ton of bats this year. To his credit, he’s rolling up huge ground ball totals and is walking fewer hitters than in the past, so he’s progressing, but I don’t really see a future where Sandy Alcantara feels like a devastating loss for the Cardinals, or a ‘what could have been’ scenario.

Zac Gallen has probably performed the best of the four, running a 2.75 ERA and 3.25 FIP at Triple A. A lot of his value has come from avoiding homers as well, but unlike Alcantara he has a very good walk rate to complement that ability. I’m still high on Gallen as a swiss army knife relief guy, in the John Gant mold, but with a little higher ceiling, I think. And as for Castano, he’s in High A ball right now, has thrown just under 40 innings, and isn’t striking anyone out. The walk rate is good, but he’s not missing bats in the Florida State League at age 23. I still think he has a chance, but it’s a pretty limited ceiling for him.

So overall, it doesn’t look like a heavy price to have paid now anymore than it did when the deal went down. I like Gallen, and Alcantara still has mid-rotation potential, but I don’t see a Jeff Bagwell-level regret in the group.

On the other hand, what the Cardinals have gotten from Ozuna has been, well, bupkes, for the most part. He currently has an 81 wRC+, and a 79 OPS+. His walk rate is an abysmal 5%, and his strikeouts are up, albeit slightly, from 2017, up to 23.1%. Really, though, contact isn’t the issue; it’s the lack of on-base percentage and power that are dragging Ozuna’s numbers down. A .265/.300/.358 line is no one’s idea of a cleanup threat, outside of perhaps a few deadball-era teams.

Now, to be fair, if we go to the Statcast data we see tons of reason for optimism on Ozuna. His exit velocity this year is up two full miles per hour, from 90.7 last season to 92.7. That ties him for 24th-highest in baseball (min. 50 batted balls), with Manny Machado. His hard hit% is 51.3%, up from 45.2% last year. His launch angle is actually, bizarrely, slightly higher this year, up to 10.7 from 10.1 degrees in 2017, which is hard to believe given he’s hitting more grounders this year than ever before. That’s right; his 49.6% groundball rate is the highest of his career, yet his average launch angle is a touch higher this year. Which, yes, seems weird.

So the statcast stuff tells us Ozuna should be way better, but his complete lack of plate discipline this season seems to be a huge limiting factor. As for his defense, it feels like he’s been bad, with several balls getting past him in the outfield that he really should have at least been able to knock down, but the numbers still say he’s been very good in left field. Yes, we’re dealing with tiny samples, but plus/minus has him at +4, DRS has him as a +2 defender, and UZR/150 pegs him at +5.5 runs. The arm has contributed to a couple good plays, and he still has excellent range. The eye test may not like him, but the eye test on defense is tough. The fact all three major systems like him is encouraging, at least, if obviously not definitive.

So there were four options, but we can knock one off completely. Stanton was not the Cards’ choice, in terms of not acquiring him. So we have three players the Redbirds could realistically have picked up this offseason as major offensive upgrades. (I think there were a couple other, more minor acquisitions possible as well, but these are the big ones.)

Martinez cost the most money, at $110 million over five years, and comes with a lot of uncertainty related to the structure of his deal. His severe lack of fielding ability hurt his value a ton, and would have made him a big liability on a team already struggling to run quality defenders out at certain positions most days. Still, that bat would look awfully good slotted in the cleanup spot.

Yelich was the cheapest in money, at about $64 million through 2022, but cost a ton in prospects. Now, I should point out that Lewis Brinson has been awful this year in Miami, and while I’m a big Monte Harrison fan, he’s struggling with contact issues in Double A right now. Isan Diaz has his own Double A contact troubles, and Jordan Yamamoto has been on the DL since the beginning of the season. It’s possible the Brewers sold the Marlins a pig in a poke, but the prospect equivalents from the Cards’ end would have been players you would not want to give up right now, let me assure you.

Ozuna, on the other hand, sort of shot the middle. The package of talent the Redbirds gave up for him was not, as I said, franchise-shattering, but he’s also only locked in for two years, has Scott Boras as an agent, and is making $9 million this year, with a further raise in arbitration likely after 2018. So he wasn’t costing the money of Martinez, nor the prospects of Yelich. He was the middle way, which feels very, very Cardinals-y, doesn’t it?

As much as I would like to dream about J.D. Martinez’s bat in the middle of the Cards’ lineup, I can’t get past the painful contract structure and defensive limitations. Even with that level of offense, I just don’t think he was a very good fit for what the Redbirds needed. Perhaps if Dexter Fowler weren’t on the roster, I’d be more amenable to the idea of hiding just one outfielder defensively, but Martinez would be tough to work into this roster even with his bat.

So really, that leaves us with a debate between Ozuna and Christian Yelich, which is largely the same debate we had much of the offseason.

Admittedly, I think that, right now, Yelich would be a better fit for the Cards’ roster than Ozuna. Yelich being a left-handed bat was always a selling point, but that was before we found out that the 2018 Cardinals literally do not have a single quality left-handed hitter on their roster. Greg Garcia is probably the best at the moment. For that fact alone, it’s hard for me not to pine for Yelich.

Defensively, I think it’s roughly a wash between Yelich and Ozuna. Both would be playing left field for the Cards, and both appear to be quite good at that position. So really no difference there.

Yelich’s xwOBA for the season is .364; Ozuna’s is .347. Even as well as Ozuna has hit the ball, the grounders and the lack of walks have him as a decent, but nothing more, hitter this year.

There was always a chance that Ozuna was going to be bad this season; after all, he was the highest-variance player of the three Marlin outfielders, and his 2017 wRC+ of 142 looked like a significant outlier. The question was whether that outlier was just an outlier, or an indication of a breakout hitter ready to consolidate himself into a star. So far this year, it looks like Ozuna really might be the guy he was in 2017 as far as quality of contact goes, but his ultra-aggressive approach and proclivity for grounders are also severe limiting factors.

In the end, I think it comes down to this: the Cardinals moved quickly after failing to get Stanton this offseason, and they made their deal for Ozuna early on. They didn’t wait around to see if Yelich would ultimately become available; remember, at the time of the Ozuna trade the Marlins were still hoping to keep Yelich as the centerpiece of their rebuild, and it was only after the firesale got going in earnest that he asked to be traded. Or demanded. Or whatever it was he did.

I don’t blame the front office for taking the bird in the hand, rather than the two that might be in the bush. They couldn’t strike out entirely this offseason on trying to get that big bat for the middle of the lineup, and they made what still feels like a very smart deal to bring said bat into the fold. To date, though, it hasn’t worked, and that fact, along with some really unexpected declines (or perhaps just unexpected terrible performances), have combined to make the offense a serious issue for a Cardinal club that has serious, realistic aspirations toward a division title, rather than marginal wild card contention.

So did the Cardinals make a mistake settling for Marcell Ozuna? No, I don’t think so. Not yet. But it’s also not looking like the kind of lineup-altering sea change of a move we had hoped it would be. And so we find the club still searching for that big bat that will make them whole, six months after the last time they made a move for one.