Bernie: Should the Cardinals Make A Late Push For Marcell Ozuna?

I’m admittedly ambivalent about the potential return of left fielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals. I’ll explain myself in a couple of minutes.

I’m bored by the rumors, but as of Friday morning the baseball-gossip mill had identified three teams that are trying to sign Ozuna.

Cardinals, Reds, Rangers.

Ozuna, 29, was the consensus choice as the top outfielder available in the free-agent class for the 2019-2020 offseason. FanGraphs projects 3.1 WAR for Ozuna in 2020. That was the highest WAR projection for a free-agent outfielder on the market.

And yet …

Ozuna hasn’t signed. (That could change at any moment, so please keep in mind that I wrote this piece on Friday morning.) Ozuna and fellow free-agent corner outfielders Nicholas Castellanos and Yasiel Puig are still waiting for the right deal.

In Ozuna’s case, what does that tell us?

1. Interested employers haven’t satisfied Ozuna’s requested contract terms. That could be length of contract, annual average salary, or both.

2. Ozuna is waiting for the Cardinals to come around and pitch an acceptable offer. Ozuna repeatedly expressed his desire to stay with the Cardinals. That said, Ozuna opted for free agency by rejected the Cards’ qualifying offer of $17.8 million on a one-year deal for 2020.

3. The Cardinals actually want the draft-pick compensation they’d receive if Ozuna signs elsewhere.

OK, assuming that Ozuna still wants to be here … and assuming that the STL front office is still engaging his agent Melvin Roman in contract talks… what should the Cardinals do?

That’s impossible to answer; we simply don’t know what (if anything) is being discussed between the Cardinals and Ozuna’s rep. And the contract terms are extremely relevant.

Example: Given the Cardinals’ disturbing sequence of mistakes in investing in aging players, it’s risky baseball business to give Ozuna a long-term deal.

A two-year deal would reduce the risk, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right call. Questions remain about Ozuna’s conditioning and right shoulder.

The Cardinals, as we know, have a parade of young outfielders. Even without Ozuna, there isn’t enough room in the outfield to give the young guys enough playing time.

A one-year deal would be fine. Ozuna can gain credibility by showing up to camp in shape, and with a stronger throwing arm. He can work on improving his offensive performance in 2020 — which starts by hitting to all fields instead of trying to pull everything — and then take another swing at free agency in 2020.

If the Cards’ interest in retaining Ozuna is real, they’ll reveal themselves through the nature of their offer.

Here’s what I mean …

If the organization is so fired up and sure about the talent of Dylan Carlson, Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena …

And if the Cards are confident that Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader can fix their glaring plate-discipline problems…

If this front office still believes that Dexter Fowler (soon to be age 34) can be a wellspring of offense…

And if team management and the manager Mike Shildt are determined to play Matt Carpenter at third base, which would mean considerable outfield playing time for sophomore Tommy Edman …

Then why would the Cardinals invest multiple years in Ozuna?

Or why even bring Ozuna back in 2020? After all, in two seasons as a Cardinal he had an average OPS+ of just over 106. Meaning that Ozuna was about six, seven percent above league average offensively.

Sorry, but that isn’t a franchise-fixture kind of hitter.

So again: why would the Cardinals stay with Ozuna?

The answer: they wouldn’t. Not with so many outfielders under contract control.

If the Cardinals relent and give Ozuna for more than a year on a contract, then obviously they’ve been bluffing and bullspitting about the talent level and the promising futures of their fleet of young outfielders.

Because if these dudes were the real deal, then the Cardinals would have no pressing reason to keep Ozuna in place.

Again, I could see a one-year deal. That could help with the process of transitioning Carlson, their best overall prospect, into the majors in 2020.

Yes, I’m aware of Ozuna’s hard-contact rate which is exceptional. And I’m aware of his poor batted-ball luck in 2019; he hit .259 on balls in play. That’s well below the league average of around .302. Ozuna made a lot of hard outs, but his bat hasn’t slowed. It would be reasonable to expect better results from him in 2020.

Here’s the problem, which I mentioned earlier: Ozuna has gone pull-crazy in his hitting approach. And unless Ozuna has the desire and the discipline to change that, his batted-ball misfortune will likely continue.

In his final two seasons (2016-2017) in Miami, Ozuna pulled the ball at rate of around 38 percent. And that includes his career year of 2017, when Ozuna slammed 37 homers, knocked in 124 runs, and posted a grand batting line of .312 / .376 / .548.

In his first season with the Cardinals, Ozuna’s pull rate jumped to 42.4 percent. In 2019, he pulled the ball at a rate of 49.5 percent.

When you have a pull-crazy opponent at the plate, he’s an easier target for pitchers and simple to defend. When opponents deployed an overshift against Ozuna in 2019, he batted .236 with a .303 slugging percentage.

Unless he’s hitting the ball over the wall for a homer, Ozuna’s pull-crazy tendencies have lessened his impact as a hitter. More than anything, Ozuna is costing himself doubles … lots and lots of doubles.

Ozuna hit only 23 doubles last season and — incredibly — only 16 in 2018. That two-season total of 39 doubles in 1,177 plate appearances is astonishingly bad, ranking 154th among MLB hitters over that time. The puny doubles total is a tremendous waste of Ozuna’s hard contact.

This is a significant issue, actually. The Cardinals ranked 28th in the majors in doubles (246) last season. They ranked 27th in MLB with 248 doubles in 2018. This showing represented the two lowest doubles totals in a season by a Cardinals team in Bill DeWitt’s 24 seasons of ownership.

Perhaps the Cardinals should take a look at Castellanos. He’s limited defensively, yes. And he’s not a fast runner. But Castellanos led the majors in doubles over the last two seasons, with 104.

Just a thought.

And a wasted thought at that.

It ain’t going to happen.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend…

–Bernie