Get The Hitting. That’s the Reds offseason mantra. Dick Williams has made clear the front office will pursue upgrades in the offense. He has also expressed a preference for acquisition through free agency over trades this year. Right on both counts.
One target: Marcell Ozuna. The outfielder may become a free agent and prove to be a bargain.
The Miami Marlins signed Ozuna as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. He played several seasons for their minor league affiliates, batting .276/.336/.492. Ozuna’s major league debut came in April 2013. He became part of the Marlins’ house-demolishing 2017 offseason, traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for four players.
The Opportunity for a Bargain
A few of Ozuna’s frontline numbers create the impression of offensive inconsistency or that his average is something less than an impact bat. Let’s start here:
Narrative: Ozuna had a single terrific season in 2017 when he created runs (wRC+) at more than 40% above league average. But otherwise, Ozuna has hovered around 7-10% above league average. His .243 batting average in 2019 is a source of concern.
Let’s dig deeper, starting with a look at Ozuna’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play). BABIP is how often balls that are hit into play fall in for hits. A player’s BABIP is influenced by his speed, quality of contact and luck based on defensive positioning, defensive plays and plain ol’ where the ball happens to land. You’d think that might even out over the course of a season. It doesn’t.
From the BABIP column: Ozuna has experienced wide swings in that metric. In 2017, his BABIP was 40 points above his career average (.315) while in 2019, it was 56 points below.
It’s possible that Ozuna had a career year in quality contact in 2017 and a lousy year in 2019. That’s where xBA (expected batting average) sheds light. xBA measures what a hitter’s batting average would be based strictly on quality of contact, independent of fielding and other luck. It turns out, Ozuna had a better batting average (based on contact) in 2018 than 2017 and was roughly similar in 2019. Once you factor out the BABIP luck (good luck in 2017, bad luck in 2019) out of the equation, Ozuna’s 2017 was no outlier.
That was a look at batting average and the stats that derive from it. What about Ozuna’s power? 2017 stands out again in that regard.
Let’s keep digging. To measure power, we can look at several metrics for how hard Ozuna hit the ball in each season.
Again, 2017 and 2019 look awfully similar. EV (mph) is average exit velocity. xwOBAcon is the expected weighted on base average of balls where contact was made. That’s a comprehensive measure of contact quality that factors out walks and strikeouts. It looks at how well the player actually hit every ball in play. For hard-hit percentage (and exit velocity) Ozuna hit the ball better in 2019 than he did in 2017. Yes, 2019 was a juiced ball season, but Ozuna’s Hard-Hit rate of 49.2% was in the top 4% of all major league hitters.
What about his lower numbers in 2016? Ozuna suffered a wrist injury on June 24 that seemed to affect his batting for the rest of the season. This chart is modified to show Ozuna’s 2016 numbers prior to the injury:
Marcell Ozuna’s pre-injury 2016 was in line with 2017 and 2019. In 2018, Ozuna had a nagging shoulder injury that he took care of in the offseason with minor surgery.
Marcell Ozuna played center field for the Marlins through the 2016 season. They moved him to left field in 2017, where Ozuna won the N.L. Gold Glove, beating out the Reds’ Adam Duvall and Gerardo Baby Shark Parra. Ozuna played only LF for St. Louis.
Ozuna’s advanced defensive metrics are mixed but close to neutral in one direction or the other. His Defensive Runs Saved and UZR were both slightly positive in 2018 and 2019. Ozuna’s dWAR at Baseball-Reference was 0.2 in 2018 and -0.4 in 2019. Statcast’s defensive metrics for Ozuna are similarly close to zero.
In the smallish confines of Great American Ball Park, Ozuna should prove to be an average left fielder, which is to say, meh. He’s not going to stand out but he’s not terrible.
What Would Ozuna Cost?
The free agent market has been unpredictable and depressed for most position players. Marcell Ozuna may be the best hitting outfielder in the free agency pool. The question is whether a few caution lights — low batting average in 2019, defensive shortcomings, perceived inconsistency, possible Cardinals qualifying offer — will hold down his price. The reality-based projections I’ve seen have a high-end of $80 million/5 years and low-end of $28 million /2 years. The $160 million/7 years floated by an interested party is unrealistic.
A reasonable mid-range would be $45-50 million/3 years.
The Cardinals and a Qualifying Offer
St. Louis may try to resign Ozuna, but they have a tight payroll situation with $140 million-plus already committed to Paul Goldschmidt, Yadi Molina, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, Dexter Fowler, etc. FYI: They’re still paying Mike Leake, who hasn’t pitched in their uniform since August 2017, $4 million. It’s hard to see the Cardinals offering Ozuna a long-term deal. Many believe the Cards will prioritize a top-of-the-rotation pitcher this offseason.
St. Louis might complicate the picture by giving Ozuna a qualifying offer of one-year salary at $17.8 million. Although, given the club’s payroll squeeze, they might not make a QO out of concern Ozuna would accept. Then again, the Cardinals might not be too worried about a one-year deal and welcome Ozuna’s limited engagement return.
How would Ozuna react to a qualifying offer? Hard to say. The free agent market for non-superstar position players has been hit-and-miss the past two years. Ozuna would also have to consider how much his offers would be further depressed by the signing club having to pay a draft pick penalty. If he senses a weak market, Ozuna might re-up with the defending NL Central champions in hopes of posting bigger numbers for 2021 free agency. That said, he could have a hard time turning down a guaranteed 3-year, $50 million contract.
Marcell Ozuna turns just 29 in a couple weeks. That places him at the young end of the free agent age spectrum. The Reds have $30-$40 million to spend on new acquisitions, assuming a conservative increase in overall payroll.
Ozuna would take over the Reds left field position. The club has two (Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino) returning candidates who might capably fill corner outfield slots. But each enters 2020 with a big question or two. Can Winker hit left-handed pitching and can he stay healthy for a season? Was Aquino’s September slump (.196/.236/.382; 31% strikeout rate; 52 wRC+) a preview of what to expect in 2020? Phillip Ervin and Josh VanMeter might also contribute valuable playing time in the outfield.
To take the next step (or two, or three) up the standings, the Reds have to move beyond being satisfied with iffy, hope-based internal options. If that results in pushing aside — or trading — a few current players, so be it. Get The Hitting means replacing familiar favorites the way Get The Pitching did. Whether Marcell Ozuna ends up being one of those acquisitions or not, the Reds must aim higher.
But Ozuna could be one of those guys. I liken his situation to Sonny Gray a year ago. Many people thought Gray had a terrible 2018 season for the Yankees and that he’d need a big bounce-back to contribute to the Reds. But a closer look at the right stats revealed Gray had been better than commonly perceived. It wouldn’t take a rebound for Gray to have value. The Reds traded for Gray and signed him to an extension. His outstanding 2019 season has already “paid for” Gray’s extension years in value.
The front office might be able to take advantage of a similar misperception regarding Marcell Ozuna. They should make an aggressive push for the big-bat outfielder and see where the market lands. No, they shouldn’t blow their bankroll on him or sign a long-term deal. But if Ozuna’s price slips a little based on largely unfounded concerns over his hitting, the Reds should pounce. $45-50 million for 3 years of Marcell Ozuna would be a big step forward.
[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Cardinals/status/1182026094930808832/photo/1]