With the calendar turning over to 2020 (Happy New Year!), the next baseball season is getting closer. Pitchers and catchers will report in less than 50 days and spring training games will start soon thereafter. Teams have been adding and subtracting from their rosters since November, executing their off-season plans. A lot of team issues have been addressed in a market that’s been much more active than recent years. That means free agents like Marcell Ozuna are slowly running out of potential landing spots. It’s a phenomenon that has happened more frequently in recent seasons, with mid-tier free agents getting squeezed by the market. That phenomenon has given rise to more “pillow deals”- a one-year contract for good-not-great free agents. The idea is to delay their free agency one season in the hope that the next season’s market will be more kind to their particular skills or that they can rebuild their value following an injury, while allowing those players to still hit free agency at a reasonably young age. Michael Wacha’s recent deal with the Mets is a great example. There’s still ample time for Ozuna to sign a multi-year deal but potential suitors have been busy making other moves. With each passing day, the odds of Ozuna returning to the Cardinals on a one year deal increase. How would that contract look?
One way to estimate this would be to look at recent examples. We want to find free agents most similar to Marcell Ozuna, who just turned 29 and is coming off of a 2.6 fWAR last season and 5.4 fWAR over the last two seasons. Our criteria for free agents:
- Ideally under 31 years old, and ideally outfielders
- 4+ fWAR over their last two seasons
- Signed a one year contract
- Since the 2014-2015 off-season
These parameters limit our list. If we expand a little past age 31 and include infielders, there are a few more examples. We can include them with the caveat that they’re slightly different. Here is our list of pillow deals for players valued similarly to Ozuna.
Dexter Fowler, 2015-2016 off-season
Age: 30 • 3.0 previous fWAR, 5.1 previous two year fWAR • $8M contract with $9M option or $5M buyout
Fowler is the closest comparable situation to Ozuna by far. Both were productive in each of the two seasons prior. Both are outfielders, each young enough at the time to get a free agent pay day even if they delayed the larger contract by a season. Like Ozuna, Fowler had a qualifying offer attached, meaning any team signing him would lose a draft pick. In Fowler’s case, he re-signed with his previous team, which would be the case should Ozuna return to the Cardinals. It’s anecdotal, but Fowler also had a great deal of comfort with his previous team, so much so that he returned even with lots of competition for playing time. That appears to be the same as Ozuna, at least in terms of his comfort with the Cardinals. No other player on this list matches Ozuna in all of those ways.
There’s a caveat to Fowler’s deal. With the $5M buyout on his 2017 option, the total value on the deal was guaranteed to be at least $13M. When interpreting that deal, it’s best to think of it as a $13M deal rather than an $8M deal with an option on a second season.
Colby Rasmus, 2014-2015 off-season
Age: 28 • 1.5 previous fWAR, 5.4 previous two year fWAR • $8M contract
Rasmus isn’t a terrible comp for Ozuna, as he had similar two year production and he was under 30 years old. They differ in a few key ways. First, Rasmus had a rough walk year, with just 1.5 fWAR. Injuries and platoon concerns had limited his playing time and production. Second, as a lefty, any team signing Rasmus knew that he was unlikely to play every day. Finally, Rasmus didn’t have a qualifying offer attached, which is a bit of an odd difference. Normally, a qualifying offer would suppress a player’s salary, but Rasmus was free of the hindrance.
His whole situation was odd. The median projection from FanGraphs crowdsourcing had him at 3 years and $30M total ($10M/year). He fell short of that by two years and $22M. He had the tenth highest three year bWAR of his free agent class, but didn’t sign until January 20th. As similar as Rasmus is to Ozuna’s situation, I’m not sure there’s anything in this odd result that can tell us much about Ozuna.
Ian Desmond, 2015-2016 off-season
Age: 30 • 1.4 previous fWAR, 5.5 previous two year fWAR • $8M contract
Desmond is a bit of an oddity like Rasmus. Desmond saw himself as a shortstop, but the market apparently felt otherwise. When he signed with the Rangers, the intention was to move him to the outfield, where his offensive production meant less than it did in the middle infield. Moreover, his walk year production- again, like Rasmus- had dipped from his previous season. His performance at the plate had steadily slipped three years in a row, all the way down to his 83 wRC+ in his walk year. He didn’t sign until spring training had started, and only got $8M for his trouble. Granted, he cashed in a year later on an ill-advised deal given out by the Rockies, but that’s irrelevant to Ozuna’s case.
That’s the entirety of our ideal matches. That trio meets all of our criteria, some more than others. If we play fast and loose with the age and position, we can find a few more options.
Mike Moustakas, 2018-2019 off-season
Age: 30 • 2.4 previous fWAR, 4.4 previous two year fWAR • $10M contract
It’s worth noting that the reason Moustakas didn’t also qualify in the 2017-2018 off-season was a rough 2016 dragging his two-year fWAR down. If you do want to include it as an example, he pulled in $6.5M that off-season. As for his contract last off-season, he’s not a terrible match. He was just one year older than Ozuna is now and he had been steadily productive, like Ozuna, in each of the two previous seasons. His production at the plate entering last off-season was very similar. On the other hand, he didn’t have a qualifying offer attached.
Josh Donaldson, 2018-2019 off-season
Age: 33 • 1.3 previous fWAR, 6.6 previous two year fWAR • $23M contract
Donaldson is a bit of a reach, as injuries in his walk year dragged his production down considerably. He’s much older than Ozuna, he’s a corner infielder, and he had MVP-quality production on his resume. It’s also hard to call this a pillow deal since he signed so early in the process. It seemed more to be his choice rather than a decision that the market foisted upon him. It’s a data point, but one that must be discounted.
Jonathan Schoop, 2018-2019 off-season
Age: 27 • 0.5 previous fWAR, 4.2 previous two year fWAR • $7.5M contract
Minty Fresh had a disastrous walk year in 2018 and wasn’t a traditional free agent. He was non-tendered by the Brewers after his few months in Milwaukee. He fits a few other parameters- he’s the right age, his two-year production is within spitting distance of Ozuna- but he’s also a second baseman. Like Donaldson, this is a data point, but one with very little weight.
Didi Gregorius, 2019-2020 off-season
Age: 30 • 0.9 previous fWAR, 5.6 previous two year fWAR • $14M contract
Gregorius is a blend of Donaldson (walk year injuries diminishing his value, a 4.5+ fWAR the year before) and Moustakas (free agency at age 30). He’s also a shortstop, which couldn’t be more different than Ozuna in a corner outfield spot, nor does he have a qualifying offer attached to him as Ozuna does. Still, the age and two year fWAR is a decent match.
Projecting Ozuna’s Pillow Contract
Those are our examples. There aren’t many, and there especially aren’t many pillow deals for players with two consecutive solid seasons entering free agency under age 31. In most cases, they were injured or had a terrible year at the worst possible time- in their walk year. Even accounting for recent market instability, it’s very rare that players like Ozuna are forced to take a pillow deal. Keep that in mind as we proceed. Marcell Ozuna should be able to find a contract for more than one year in St. Louis.
Draft pick compensation for qualifying offers, valued between $4M and $10M depending on which team gives up the pick for 2019, clearly dampened the market for Fowler and Desmond. It also did the same for Moustakas in the season before the one listed above. It’s doing the same thus far for Ozuna and his free agent outfield twin, Nicholas Castellanos. Fowler’s contract value ended up a little bit higher than the qualifying offer ($15.8M at the time) minus a lower draft pick value if we prorate the data in the Craig Edwards article for 2015-2016. Desmond’s was similar, with an additional amount removed due to his poor performance in his walk year and his position change.
Ozuna has no position change and had a solid, if unspectacular, 2019. It’d be easy to see teams wishcasting his statscast data to project him as something more than he was in St. Louis. With all of that in mind, a pillow deal for Ozuna would fall closer to Fowler’s and probably a little bit more. Applying the Fowler math from 2016 gets us $17.8M (Ozuna’s qualifying offer) minus a lower-end draft pick for compensation ($4M). That would be one year for $13.8M, but Ozuna is one year younger than Fowler was and has those tasty statcast peripherals. Let’s round it up and then some to $15M guaranteed. If the Big Bear is still unsigned entering February, a single season at $15M should serve as your baseline expectation for a return deal to the Cardinals.