by Steve Mancuso

Here’s why the Reds should target Marcell Ozuna

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.

Ozuna’s Defense

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.

Conclusion

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]

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce and Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

12 Comments

    • Steve Mancuso

      Thanks. Yes, although I think it works better for Winker and Aquino to compete for the RF spot. Winker isn’t a terrific fit for CF. I expect the Reds to have Nick Senzel in CF or bring in a new guy moving Senzel to 2B. Either way, CF should have someone playing every day. The Reds could trade Winker or Aquino (or both) to a rebuilding team to acquire a more established and bigger bat.

  • Brian B

    This was a great read. I didn’t realize how unlucky Ozuna was this season in regards to his BABIP. If the Reds could get him for 3 years/$50 million, where else would you like to see them spend some money? It feels like the middle infield is a pretty big question mark, but I’m torn because I think we also need an upgrade at catcher.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Thanks. Yeah, I was surprised, too. When I started researching the post I didn’t really have a predisposition about whether the Reds should pursue Ozuna. But the more I researched it, the more I became convinced that there’s a good chance he’d be a big bat. He won’t hit like he did in 2017 because that was luck fueled. But he’d end up somewhere between 2017 and 2019.

  • scottya

    Ozuna (career WRC+ 109 vs RHP) gives the team a certian nice upgrade and a 3 year 45-50m contract would make sense. That would leave appx 15-25m left to spend, based on the numbers you gave.

    I’m concerned about the Reds hitting against RHP. If we trade Winker (career WRC+ 137 vs RHP) that makes that a greater weekness; depending on who else they add at Catcher, 2b or SS.

    I reread what Dick Williams said about 2020 – “That’s the goal next year. It’s not taking incremental steps in a rebuild. It’s about the postseason.”. I’m envisioning Corey Seager (+7.1m) Cincinnati Red. That would cost a ton in player/prospect haul! They would want Hunter Greene+

    • Steve Mancuso

      I think we’ll see one or two big moves to acquire offense. But I also expect those to come in free agency or at least not at the cost of more top Reds prospects. That said, if the Reds can swing a big bat that has 2 or more years of team control and the price is a top prospect, I’d give it serious consideration.

  • vegastypo

    Could you envision the Reds pursuing Ozuna if he does turn down the qualifying offer? I don’t think he could come cheap enough to make them want to give up that draft pick. … Maybe three years is the right amount of time if you’re going to pull the trigger, though. … Don’t think we would want to give up a draft pick for a guy who we’re only planning to have for a year or two, but don’t think we would want to be stuck with Ozuna for longer than three years, either.

    Before reading this, my thought about Ozuna was an automatic ‘no thanks.’ Very good stuff.

    And I can’t help myself but comment on the question whether Winker could ever hit lefty pitching. With this manager, he would never get the chance, so who cares? It IS a fair point about whether Winker could ever stay healthy. I hope we’re not still wondering about that question with Senzel a few years from now.

    –Brian V.

    • Steve Mancuso

      That’s about where I am. I wouldn’t pay top dollar for Ozuna. But an opportunity may present itself due to the combination of factors I outlined in the post, that his value might come down to a more reasonable AAV and duration. He’s not going to be cheap. But Ozuna’s “lack of consistency” shouldn’t be a reason to avoid him.

  • R Smith

    I like Ozuna and the notion of a right handed power bat in the order playing every day. Ron Gant and Greg Vaughn were players in the 90’s who filled that power bat role from LF. Perhaps the QO would lower his price tag.

    Moustakis at 2b and Ozuna in LF would be nice additions to the lineup.

    • Steve Mancuso

      I agree. The Reds should view the QO as a positive, since it will discourage other suitors and lower the price. Ozuna at a reasonable price is worth a lot more to the Reds than their third-highest draft pick.

    • R Smith

      Mlb traderumors has predictions for FA signings. They predict grandal to the Reds at 4/68 and Gregorious to the Reds at 3/42+

      Do the Reds really spend $110 Million in FA?