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The case against re-signing Marcell Ozuna

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Assuming he declines the QO, I don’t think the Cards should re-sign him

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

According to the rumor mill, Marcell Ozuna is not going to accept the qualifying offer of $17.8 million and will elect free agency. Now, it’s possible that this rumor is wrong and he does accept it. In which case, I welcome Ozuna back and you can completely ignore this post. This post assumes he will reject it and bringing Ozuna back will require a multi-year deal. I am very much in favor of him returning for one more year.

I’ll make another necessary disclaimer: it obviously depends on what he’ll get in free agency. If the market dictates he’ll only get, say, 2 years, $30 million because free agency is broken beyond repair, I would not seriously object to that deal. That would be absurd. (Well, I’d object to the owners screwing over the players so obviously, but aside from that!) . So two assumptions being made in this post you can ignore if they aren’t true: his contract exceeds what I would do (my post is too long to get into specifics here) and he rejects the qualifying offer.

I think there are two things driving what appears to be the majority of Cardinals fans to think the Cardinals have to re-sign Ozuna. The first thing is that the Cardinals need offense more than they need pitching. The second thing is that Ozuna is the Cards’ middle of the order bat and it’ll make the Cardinals offense worse if they let him go. I don’t subscribe to either reason.

I’ll start with the latter point since it’s connected to the first point. Now, Ozuna seems to be perceived as a much better hitter than he actually is, or at least has been with the Cardinals. He has a career 112 wRC+ which closely matches his 110 and 107 wRC+ the past two seasons. Now his Statcast numbers suggest he should be better, but Mike Petriello made a good case that it wasn’t really about luck. I suggest you read the whole piece, but he also quotes a piece by fangraphs about xwOBA underperformers, of which Ozuna has been in the top 20 for two straight years.

The only hitter to underachieve in both 2018 and 2019 was Marcell Ozuna. His .327 wOBA in 2018 was 32 points short of his xwOBA, while this season’s .340 wOBA was 40 points below his xwOBA. Again, without an explanation, it is hard to know if Ozuna has been incredibly unlucky or if there is some reason why he has fallen well below his xwOBA in successive seasons.

If Ozuna underperformed his wOBA by at least 20 points for a third season, he would join Alex Gordon and Joe Mauer as the only ones since 2016, given a sample of 2,000 pitches seen each season. He also found that there have not been many instances of players who substantially overachieve one season and substantially underachieve xwOBA in another. So the pendulum is highly unlikely to swing the other way for Ozuna. As the author concludes, it is safe to say at the least that we shouldn’t expect anywhere near the .380 xwOBA he had in 2019 for his 2020 wOBA.

In support of that point, Petriello looked at the batted balls to see if there was something behind his underperformance. It’s not homers and it’s not line drives. He had a .270 expected average on ground balls. It was .160. Essentially, in 2017, he had a lot of his groundballs up the middle and now he’s pulling most of them right at the shortstop.

Put another way: In ‘17, he pulled 37 percent of grounders, hit hard 36 percent of the time. In ‘19, he pulled 55 percent of grounders, hit hard 33 percent of the time. That’s ... worse.

So Ozuna was slightly above average the past two years, has been a little bit above that in his career, and I’m not totally sure we shouldn’t just ignore his xwOBA numbers. Now, a benefit to signing him is that his free agent price will probably be based off his past two years more than his Statcast numbers. So in theory, you get the floor of the past two years with the potential of Statcast. I don’t think his ceiling is literally what his xwOBA numbers are though, since I think he’s pretty likely to underperform in some capacity, even if it’s not extreme like the past two years. But also, most of the other 29 teams also know this and should adjust appropriately.

And it’s only fair, if you want to rely on Statcast for his offense, to note how much they do not believe in his defense. It’s really hard to square watching him play defense and seeing his UZR numbers (+8.6 UZR/150 in 2019, +5.4 career.) Baseball-Reference is not as kind with -0.4 dWAR. Fangraphs and B-R basically agreed with each other in his two previous years at LF, while Statcast had him 3 outs above average in 2017 and -1 in 2018. But Statcast had him -8 outs above average in 2019. I feel like any potential upside in his bat from Statcast is neutralized by what are likely to be worse defensive numbers (at least by fangraphs)

I still haven’t really addressed the point that the Cardinals offense will get worse without Ozuna. It’s pretty unlikely that Ozuna being on the 2020 Cardinals wouldn’t improve the offense unless the Cardinals drastically overperform (only four teams have a greater than 110 wRC+ in 2019) or Ozuna underperforms.

But, and this may sound absurd, I think the Cardinals team non-pitcher wRC+ of 100 is likely to improve even without Ozuna. Paul Goldschmidt alone could improve it drastically if he plays more to his career 141 wRC+ instead of the 116 wRC+. Matt Carpenter, who a lot of people believe is broke for good, still managed a 95 wRC+, but his career is 129. Tommy Edman is the only player who drastically played better offensively than we can probably expect and he is more than outweighed by Goldschmidt and Carp if they improve their numbers (Both received 1,174 PAs to Edman’s 349). So offense worse without Ozuna than with? Yes. Offense without Ozuna worse in 2020 than in 2019? I don’t think so.

Now if you look at pitching, that’s a different story. Does anybody actually believe Adam Wainwright is going to duplicate his 2019? Well Wainwright and his family probably, but I cannot see a 38-year-old Wainwright throwing 171 innings again. Dakota Hudson had a whopping 1.58 ERA-FIP differential, although some of that was 15 unearned runs. I expect him to be both a better pitcher in 2020 and for his ERA to rise a lot. And while I believe in both Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas, the odds are good they are not going to beat their combined 7.2 fWAR in 2019.

You can’t talk about losing Ozuna without looking at his replacements of course. And we come to my third assumption: the Cardinals are not bringing Jose Martinez back in 2020. If Martinez is taking anywhere near 373 PAs in 2020, they should sign Ozuna. Which, in turn, would probably force them to trade Jose Martinez.

I am perfectly content to ride the youth wave. Tyler O’Neill deserves a full season to see what he is at this point. When given regular playing time, he has delivered so far. I’m a believer in Harrison Bader still. I think some combination of Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena would make a fine 3rd/4th OFer and I’m assuming Dexter Fowler has to be on the roster, but he’s actually a good 4th OFer (though I have no hope they will use him like that). And Dylan Carlson can replace whichever of the youngsters fails. Or Carlson can rip up spring training and he make the team. The Cardinals haven’t really shown a history of manipulating service time and have been ultra aggressive with Carlson so far. But I think wanting more than 18 games at AAA is hardly an indefensible position either.

It’s a risk, but I’m not sure it’s as much as a risk as it seems. Tyler O’Neill is still just 24, has a career 103 wRC+ with a 94 projected Steamer (and ZiPS is almost certainly going to be higher on him since 2018 Steamer was lower on O’Neill on 2018). Arozarena is at 99 wRC+ by Steamer (I’m guessing ZiPS will be lower on him, based on years of looking at ZiPS projections and a suspicion they will be more skeptical of his BABIPs) . And Lane Thomas is at 90 wRC+. All three are likely to be better on defense than Ozuna given their speed and ability to play CF. Depending on your opinion of their defense (and Ozuna’s), it seems like an acceptable drop-off to me, especially if the Cards use that money and sign a starter (not Cole, but there are a few upgrades there in the Cards’ budget)

I could go longer, but my main points were that 1) the Cardinals offense will still improve without Ozuna and 2) the Cardinals pitching will decline without an upgrade. Besides, the mediocre offense is a bit misleading when most of the Cards’ bats value is in their defense. Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Bader are among the best at their position, if not the best. The first two were the best position players on the Cards despite mediocre offense, while the latter still an above average player despite well below average offense. And the youngsters could fit that mold as well. I would, however, prefer Ozuna take the QO. So let’s hope the reporting is wrong and Ozuna is still a Cardinal in 2020.