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What to Do With Ozuna

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Marcell Ozuna is back from injury, and hopefully ready to contribute to the club’s stretch run. But what comes after that?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Marcell Ozuna returned from the injured list over the weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is he didn’t really do much, and the Cardinals just finished up getting swept in a two-game set by the Athletics, including flailing away helplessly at Tanner Roark for a whole afternoon. Fantastic. To be fair, Ozuna did draw a couple walks in his first series back, and picked up a hit on Saturday. It’s just that when the top five in your lineup go 2-for-18, you’re not going to win very many baseball games.

Here’s the thing: it’s been a little tough to recognise, given how up and down the season has been, not to mention Ozuna missing a good chunk of the season due to breaking two fingers, but Marcell Ozuna is having a really interesting season. Kind of a remarkable season, actually. And the question of what you do with a soon-to-be 29 year old player who is having kind of a remarkable season, when you are in the position of the Cardinals right now, is a fairly fraught one to answer.

In 2018, Marcell Ozuna turned in a fine season. It was a somewhat strange campaign, but he ended up being worth 2.7 wins above replacement, which is certainly by no means bad. It’s not great, not franchise-altering, but it’s not bad. It just wasn’t what the Cardinals were hoping for when they picked Ozuna up the previous offseason. Plugged into the middle of a Redbird lineup that needed a power-hitting, capital-p Presence, Ozuna put together an odd batting line. He hit .280, which was good, but drew very few walks (6.1%), and hit for very little power (.153 ISO). He made a lot of contact, but seeing your hulking left fielder throwing up the batting profile of a middle infielder is disconcerting, particularly when he was brought in specifically to do damage in key spots. In 2017, the season the Cardinals were hoping to see Ozuna replicate, he hit 37 home runs in 679 plate appearances. In 2018, he hit 23 in 628 trips to the dish.

So here’s the interesting bit: in 2019, Marcell Ozuna is having almost exactly that same season as 2017, the one the Cards were hoping to get. Now, the results haven’t been exactly the same — Marcell’s wRC+ in 2017 was 144, in 2018 it was 106, and this year it’s 118 — but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Here are some of Ozuna’s key offensive statistics in 2019, compared to his big breakout season of 2017:

  • 2017 BB% — 9.4%
  • 2019 BB% — 9.7%
  • 2017 K% — 21.2%
  • 2019 K% — 20.9%
  • 2017 ISO — .237
  • 2019 ISO — .253
  • 2017 O-Swing% — 34.3%
  • 2019 O-Swing% — 30.9%
  • 2017 FB% — 33.5%
  • 2019 FB% — 38.2%
  • 2017 HR/FB% — 23.4%
  • 2019 HR/FB% — 23.0%

In most key ways, Ozuna has been either nearly exactly the same hitter this year he was in 2017, or in some cases has been even better. He’s put the ball in the air more often. He’s chasing pitches out of the zone less often. He’s hitting for more power this year than ever before, and his walk rate would be a career high. He’s even been a much better baserunner in 2019 than he was two years ago, currently sitting at 2.2 runs added on the bases, versus a -5.2 run rating in 2017.

So why is it Marcell Ozuna isn’t being lauded for his amazing season this year the way he was in 2017? Well, as is so often the case, the culprit is batted-ball luck, or in this case a lack thereof. In 2017, Ozuna posted a .355 batting average on balls in play; this year that figure is .274. It’s possible the extra fly balls are causing some of that difference, but not all of it. Ozuna was undoubtedly fortunate on batted balls in 2017, but his career BABIP is also .319, so it would appear there’s a decent amount of poor fortune baked into this season’s numbers. And when you’re getting 80 points worth of batted-ball luck going in the opposite direction, it’s going to skew the numbers in one direction or the other.

All of which leads me to the point of this column, which is to ask what the Cardinals should do with Marcell Ozuna after this season is over. All along, I’ve felt like it was a simple, straightforward answer: you extend the qualifying offer to Ozuna, he walks away, signs a big contract somewhere else, and you accept your draft pick compensation with dignity and gratitude. The move to bring Ozuna in to anchor your lineup just didn’t work, much as many of the other moves you’ve tried to make over the past several years have not, and the explosion of Christian Yelich into top five player in baseball has really highlighted the fact you settled for the Marlins outfielder you probably wanted least, in order to avoid failing to get any of them.

I will admit, though, that I honestly didn’t realise what kind of season Ozuna was putting together this year, which is to say he’s been exactly the player you were hoping to acquire back in the winter of ‘17, only with a little batted-ball luck going against him, rather than offering him an additional tailwind. And that complicates things a bit for me.

It’s also a fact that we’ve seen once again this year how few sure things there are in the game of baseball. I remember this time last year, Harrison Bader looked like a future all-star, a future sabermetric darling, possibly a future Hall of Fame candidate about whom people waxed poetic the way old Philadelphians do about Richie Ashburn. Or the way a generation of Cardinal fans do Curt Flood. Now Bader is back in Triple A trying to find his swing, and while we can argue about playing time and how he should still be starting regardless, the fact is a 72 wRC+ is tough to stomach, and certainly not getting you into the Hall of Fame, or even the Hall of Really Fast Center Fielders People Like to Reminisce About. Tyler O’Neill has certainly shown promise and some improvement, but he’s been a little injury-prone in his big league career, and striking out a third of the time is also tough to stomach, particularly when there aren’t that many walks to help drag the OBP up.

So really, what should the Cardinals do about Marcell Ozuna? Dylan Carlson is on the way, Randy Arozarena is making a very strong case he should be a big leaguer, and the Cardinal farm system seems, as always, to be bursting at the seams with potentially useful outfielders. And yet, over and over again we see guys come up, have some success, and then settle into a middling territory of good player, not great. That’s not me taking a shot at the Cardinals’ player development staff or the big league coaches, either (no, not even the Mike Matheny era guys); that’s just what happens to the vast majority of players. Major league baseball is hard. Being great at it is unbelievably hard. Stephen Piscotty’s career path is not an aberration proving the Cards can’t develop hitters; he’s much more the norm throughout baseball history, a talented player with strong points and weak points, whose overall game ends up somewhere in the middle, and with a fair amount of variation year to year. Stars are the aberration, not the journeymen.

Marcell Ozuna is playing in 2019 like a star. Over a full season, he’s on pace right now for about a 3.5ish win season. That’s quite good, but it’s not otherworldly. If we give him his career average BABIP, though, suddenly his numbers turn into something very different. So he’s been outstanding this year. So that’s really good to have. So what do you do about Marcell Ozuna?

Ozuna will be 29 in 2020, when his new contract begins, wherever that may be. I don’t know what kind of length he’ll be looking for when he and Scott Boras head into the market, but I’m sure it won’t be a short deal. (Editor’s Note: Ozuna switched agencies earlier this season, and is no longer a Scott Boras client. The author has been sacked, and the men sent to sack him have been sacked. Hat tip to my old boss at the RFT Tom Finkel for being first in with the correction. — A.) Even in this current climate of free agent freezeouts and collusion talk, a player who has produced nearly 20 wins in his career to date will likely not have to settle for a three-year deal. I can’t imagine less than five, maybe longer. I guess four wouldn’t be out of the question. But let’s say it takes a five-year deal to get him. Ages 29-33. That might not do it, considering this will likely be Ozuna’s only chance to really cash in, but we’ll go with five years. How eager are you to buy four seasons of Ozuna’s 30s? How confident are we he’ll keep himself in shape, which has always been at least somewhat of a question with him?

On the other hand, how confident should we be the Cardinals can replace his production? Then again, do we believe this is now his level of production? This is the player he has been now for two out of the last three years, but the season in between was a strange diversion into an earlier-career version of Ozuna, basically, back when he was thinner, and faster, and a different hitter, but also a center fielder, and not a bad one at that. If he was the same hitter in 2018 that he was in 2017, and that he has been in 2019, it would be easy to buy into the player he is now. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. But if Ozuna really does walk off into the sunset, how much uncertainty is left behind in the Cardinal outfield? And given their goal of every-year contention, is that level of uncertainty acceptable?

All along, I thought I knew what the Cardinals would do about Marcell Ozuna, and what I would do were I in their shoes. But after having seen how things have played out this season, and looking closer at the player Ozuna himself has been, I now have my doubts, if not about my approach then certainly about my level of belief in it.

And so, as we head into the home stretch of this maddening, frustrating, occasionally exhilarating season, I think it’s worth not assuming we know, but asking the question frankly, and with as little preconception as possible. What do you do with Ozuna?