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Was 2017 Marcell Ozuna for real?

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And if the new Cardinals outfielder can’t repeat 2017, what does that mean for the team?

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

For weeks (months?), rumors circulated around the interest of the St. Louis Cardinals in Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, the platonic ideal of the now-trite term “impact bat”. But once it became apparent that Stanton would not waive his no-trade clause, leading to his move to the New York Yankees, it was time to reevaluate what constitutes an “impact bat.”

The version of Marcell Ozuna, reportedly acquired via trade from the Marlins yesterday, that made 679 plate appearances last season certainly fits any reasonable definition of “impact bat”. He wasn’t quite Giancarlo Stanton, but very few were. Ozuna’s wRC+ of 142 matched that of Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon, who respectively finished 3rd and 6th in National League MVP voting. Ozuna himself finished tied for 15th for the award and tied for 16th in the NL in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement with Bryce Harper, who is probably a year away from becoming the highest-paid player in baseball history.

2017 Marcell Ozuna was a legitimately fantastic player, and two cost-controlled years of such a player without giving up any upper-echelon prospects or MLB regulars is a tremendous coup for a front office. But the Cardinals aren’t acquiring 2017 Marcell Ozuna—they’re acquiring 2018 and 2019 Marcell Ozuna.

While Ozuna has been a productive player in the past—most notably in 2014, when the then-23 year-old was a 4.5 WAR player by Baseball Reference’s measurement—2017 marked an unprecedented level of offensive excellence. By the Triple Crown statistics, Ozuna reached his career-high batting average (.312) by 43 points, his career-high in home runs (37) by 14, and his career-high in runs batted in (124) by 39. For a 26 year-old to have his best offensive season is not itself a shocking turn of events, but the degree to which Ozuna launched himself into the upper annals of MLB sluggers was unexpected.

There were a few signs that Marcell Ozuna had truly improved and wasn’t simply getting lucky—his 9.4% walk rate was a career-high, and while higher walk rates tend to correspond with higher strikeout rates, Ozuna’s 21.2% strikeout rate is slightly below his career mark of 22%. But his .355 batting average on balls in play was a career-high, and while Ozuna is a bit faster than his paltry base running statistics might imply (he stole one base in four attempts in 2017 and was below-average by FanGraphs Base Running Runs), that he would rank 9th among baseball’s 144 qualified hitters in 2017 by BABIP (10th place was his teammate Dee Gordon, who stole 60 bases) seems to not be a reflection of actual talent but of luck.

But since the most striking (pun partially intended) thing about Ozuna’s 2017 breakthrough was his power, it’s worth looking at batted ball data, and in 2017, Ozuna had a career-high percentage of batted balls classified as hard-hit, with 39.1%, tied for 23rd among qualified hitters and ranking above such obvious names as Mike Trout and his teammate, Giancarlo Stanton.

Of the 183 players in Major League Baseball last season with at least 400 at-bats, Marcell Ozuna ranked 40th in xwOBA, Statcast’s measure of a player’s expected offensive production based on batted-ball data. At .359, his xwOBA was 29 points lower than his actual wOBA, which is cause for some concern for anybody banking on 2017 being exactly what Ozuna will be going forward, but a .359 wOBA would have put him just a hair below the likes of Chris Taylor, Travis Shaw, Andrew McCutchen, and his new Cardinals teammate Matt Carpenter.

xwOBA is not a perfect measurement, but a conclusion that a player who took an extreme step forward would regress a bit the next season is logical, if not definitely true. Presently available projection systems for 2018 do have Ozuna taking a step back from where he was in 2017, but are generally optimistic that he isn’t the same player he was in 2015, when the Marlins demoted him to the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs (there may have also been some arbitration clock manipulation going on there, but regardless, there is little doubt that Ozuna was struggling). Steamer has Ozuna at 3.5 WAR for 2018, with improved base running, slightly better defense (and this is coming off a Gold Glove season in left field), and worse but still very good hitting (125 wRC+ and .362 wOBA).

Projections and advanced metrics suggest Marcell Ozuna is a good hitter, though perhaps not a great one, which makes him a less exciting, franchise-altering move than acquiring Christian Yelich, whose very club-friendly contract (it runs through 2021 at well below market value and includes a 2022 team option) has more long-term value than Marcell Ozuna, who is only under team control through the 2019 season. But while Yelich would have required a massive prospect haul, the cost for Ozuna is considerably lower.

The reported haul (“reported” because the deal was not made official by the clubs, but it has been confirmed by Miami Herald beat writer Clark Spencer and St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold, among others) does not include top-tier prospects such as Alex Reyes, Carson Kelly, and Jack Flaherty. Sandy Alcantara, the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ end of the trade, has interesting stuff and hurts the most of the quartet of prospects lost, but was going to rank behind Reyes, Flaherty, and Luke Weaver among young Cardinals pitchers who could take spots in the MLB rotation. Magneuris Sierra is entertaining, and he does have the speed to be intriguing, but his complete lack of power makes him a very raw prospect. And when a player with Marcell Ozuna’s potential for lineup mayhem becomes available, a team cannot blink at losing Zac Gallen or Daniel Castano to make it happen.

Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich would be more exciting acquisitions in and of themselves for the Cardinals, but the cost of either (monetarily for Stanton; prospect-wise for Yelich) would likely impede any other major transactions for the Cardinals this off-season. But with current payroll flexibility and top prospects available, the Cardinals can (and should) pursue further moves. All five players Craig Edwards suggested in November trading to the Toronto Blue Jays for Josh Donaldson and Roberto Osuna are still in the Cardinals’ organization, and all but Aledmys Diaz (who is easily replaceable) remain from his proposal for Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer. Additionally, the acquisition of Baltimore Orioles third baseman/possible shortstop Manny Machado never hinged on the presence of the players the Cardinals are trading to Miami.

As franchise-altering move, the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna may come off as a bit underwhelming. But it is a solid move for a good-to-great player who will improve the 2018 and 2019 Cardinals, and one which leaves the door open for a franchise-altering move in the coming weeks.