With Marcell Ozuna having himself a fantastic offensive start to the 2020 season (.324/.439/.676 with a wRC+ of 196 through ten games), even as he’s cooled off over the past week I can’t help but be slightly envious of the player that the Atlanta Braves are trotting to the plate every night, look back on the past two years, and say “what if?” The St. Louis Cardinals utilized Ozuna in 278 games over two years, praying to the baseball deities night after night that a spark of the man who left Miami for the Midwest, and apparently has showed back up in Georgia, would magically appear to fix the run-producing black hole that was the middle of the Redbirds lineup. That man never came.
Two versions of the same player come to mind when I think of Marcell Ozuna. His monstrous 2017 campaign composed of towering moonshots and Gold Glove-caliber defense (-4.3 DEF…) is the first version. That was the Marcell that the Cardinals thought they were signing up for when they acquired him. The second version of Ozuna is scaling the outfield wall to rob a homer, only for the ball to land ten feet in front of the warning track. That is the player the Cardinals received. While the optics say that the Cards should have pushed harder for him to stick around in St. Louis, a declining arm, near-average offensive production, and mediocre defense characterized Ozuna’s stay in the Midwest and convinced the club they would be better off without sinking payroll into a currently mediocre player. Toss in the now vacant outfield spot that unlocked the depth of the Cardinal’s prospects and the compensation draft pick acquired from Atlanta when Ozuna declined the qualifying offer, and I would argue that the Cardinals will be just fine moving forward with a home-grown talent in left.
First, let’s talk about the biggest sticking point around Ozuna’s departure: his offense. In his All-Star 2017 season, he put up an impressive .312/.376/.548 slash line, smacking 37 homeruns and driving in 124 runs along the way. For you sabermetricians out there, how does a wOBA of .388, 143 wRC+, and a 5 WAR season (per Fangraphs) sound?
Well, it sounded mighty appealing to the Cardinals, who hungrily snatched Ozuna up with the expectation that he was on track for a repeat performance at the plate. Unfortunately, the Big Bear that roared in 2017 never poked his head out of the cave for St. Louis. Ozuna’s production in the batter’s box took a hit in 2018, reflected in his slash line of .280/.325/.433 and only 23 round-trippers, tying his career low home run total in seasons in which he achieved 600 plate appearances. While that looks decent on paper, his dip in wOBA (.327) and wRC+ (107) paints a more disappointing picture. However, improvements in baserunning and a lower strikeout rate still led to a decent 2.8 WAR season. A nagging shoulder issue that required surgery explained some of Ozuna’s struggles, keeping expectations high for a healthy 2019.
The bounce-back year was put on hold in June when Ozuna fractured two fingers on his right hand, leading to a stint on the Injured List. He still managed to finish out the season with a slightly improved .241/.328/.472 and 29 homeruns. A marginally boosted .336 wOBA and 109 wRC+ showed improvement, but his WAR of 2.5 was not the return to the 5 WAR 2017 player that a healthy shoulder promised. Ozuna went from a power-hitting slugger to a barely better than league-average batter in the span of one season. While still valuable on a major league roster, the Cards would not have to look far to replace Ozuna’s offensive production.
The acquisition of external outfielders was always a bit of a head scratch when considering the Cardinals up and coming outfield talent. Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, and the oft-discussed Dylan Carlson are a few of the young names that have MLB potential. With Ozuna leaving a vacancy in the left side of the outfield, the opportunity to give Thomas and O’Neill, and eventually Carlson, more playing time is attractive. In just 34 MLB games with 44 plate appearances, Lane Thomas smacked a silly .316/.409/.684 with a wRC+ of 181, and the prospect of giving him more at-bats is extremely alluring. Further, the 21-year-old Carlson ripped up the minors at two levels in 2019 and sported a strong 2020 spring training prior to lockdown. If Ozuna’s absence allows the prospect to develop more rapidly, then it would be a departure well worth it.
Speaking of prospects, the final upside to the Ozuna deal is the compensation pick handed over by the Braves. Taken number 70 overall in the 2020 Draft, compensation pick Alec Burleson looks to be an interesting young outfielder. His college career average of .341 becomes even more impressive when you take his 3.47 ERA into account. A two-way player at ECU but drafted as a pure hitter, look for Burleson’s power numbers to skyrocket as he begins to train his bat exclusively and no longer must worry about arm care and conditioning.
Worth a brief mention, Ozuna’s defense really wasn’t as bad as the eye test said it was. With a DRS of 5 and 1 in his 2018 and 2019 seasons respectively, and a UZR of 4 and 5.7, Marcell was… fine. He wasn’t a horrible fielder a la Jose Martinez (-10 DRS in 2019), but he certainly wasn’t a high-flying Harrison Bader either (14 DRS in 2019). Tyler O’Neill hasn’t been reliable on either side of the ball, but I’m confident that Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson can replicate Ozuna’s defensive contribution, at the minimum.
Context has not been kind to Marcell Ozuna. He put together two solid seasons for St. Louis, and without the premise of his astounding 2017, those two years might have earned more appreciation. Further, a shoulder injury that wrote off his 2018 made his 2019 even more promising. Not one, but two letdowns accompanied Ozuna’s stint in the Midwest, and neither were really his fault. The media, the front office, and the fans simply expected too much of the man. While the sentiment is that Ozuna over-performed in Miami, he still put up better than average major league numbers in 2018 and 2019, and 2020 is proving that Marcell still has some pep in his bat, even if his glove leather looks a little ragged. He may not be winning another Gold Glove if his defense continues to be meh (and thus far, it’s very meh), but his bat still plays, and alongside his charming smile and charisma that teammates so often spoke of, will be a welcome contribution to an increasingly more dangerous Braves lineup. Good luck in Atlanta, Big Bear – you deserved better in St. Louis.
Featured Image: @Cardinals