St. Louis Cardinals: The Marcell Ozuna trade revisited, one year later
The St. Louis Cardinals are currently rounding up their trip to Vegas for this year’s Winter Meetings. As fans will remember, the trade that sent Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals happened at last year’s Winter Meetings. Lets revisit that trade one year later.
On December 13, 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals got the bat they had been searching for. Marcell Ozuna was a quick pivot opportunity seized by the Cardinals after their attempts for Giancarlo Stanton were not realized. At the time, Ozuna was coming off an All-Star season where he hit .312 with 37 homers and 124 RBI’s. The fan base was satisfied, at least for the moment, and we were all full of anticipation about what the 2018 season was going to hold.
The 2017 Winter Meetings was also when the Miles Mikolas signing was announced, but for the sake of this article, we are going to focus on Ozuna. With that in mind, let’s recap the 2018 performances of both Ozuna and the prospects sent back to Miami.
Because there are prospects involved in the return, I believe it is still too early to declare a winner of this trade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a look at the short term returns, which is what the St. Louis Cardinals are looking for anyway.
The Miami Side
In giving up Ozuna, the Marlins got back four prospects from the St. Louis Cardinals, three of which were in the organization’s top 30. Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano were all sent to Miami. I am going to focus on the top three names here as Castano is not in the Marlins’ top 30 prospect listing.
Giving up Alcantara no doubt hurt the most. As a top three prospect in the Cardinals farm system before being trading, Alcantara instantly became the number one prospect in the Marlins organization upon his arrival.
The 22 year old only started six games with the Fish and 22 games in AAA. After a somewhat surprising assignment to AAA at the beginning of the season, Alacantara was called up in late June. He made just one start before going on the disabled list with a right armpit infection, which hampered him until August. He was called up in September, where he started for the Marlins for the last month of the season and actually provided some excitement to look forward to.
Over the last month of the season, Alcantara started five times, registering an ERA of 3.72 and averaging just under a strikeout per inning. This was a really positive sign for Alcantara, as demonstrated that he was growing towards his ace potential for the Marlins. For a team with little to take from 2018, this was true progress.
In 2017 when Alcantara was called up in September, he threw 8.1 innings and walked 6 batters while giving up two homers. Alcantara’s aresenal features a fastball/sinker. He throws about 61% of the time, averaging 98 mph and touching 100 mph every once in a while in 2017. Yes, it was a very small sample size out of the bullpen for sure BUT, that gave us a little taste of what he could do.
In 2018, as a starter in the majors, Alcantara threw 34 innings over his 6 starts and walked 23 batters, but only gave up three homers. His fastball/sinker velo also dropped down to a more sustainable 95 mph. The 2017 walk rate per nine was 6.7 and 6.1 in 2018. While it isn’t significant, there are a few things we can draw from this.
First, the velocity drop can mean a couple things. Yes obviously Alcantara is going to throw harder when he comes out of the bullpen, but he also pitched like he was trying to throw the ball past everyone in 2017. He could in the minors, but major league hitters don’t get fooled by velocity alone. This dip in velo and the lower walk rate is a sign that he is changing his approach and trying to actually locate his pitches to opposing batters rather than blow them away.
Control has always been an issue for Alcantara, and albeit there is a small sample size in both years, improvement is improvement. Alcantara seems to be becoming more mature in his approach to pitching. This is a great sign for the 23 year old Alcantara and the Marlins moving forward.
Mags Sierra is the perfect example of the St. Louis Cardinals fans getting too excited about a prospect before he is ready and before they see what kind of player he truly is. Coming up from A-ball in 2017, Mags stole a couple bases and hit a lot of infield singles and all the sudden he was the darling of the Cardinals because of his blinding speed.
The 21 year old had a couple stints with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017 and finished the year batting .317 over 22 games with zero extra base hits. Therein lies the problem with Sierra which we will continue to see as we recap his 2018. He has four great tools but no power.
At one point last offseason, it was thought that Sierra would start everyday for the Fish in center field, but they intelligently started him off at AAA to start the year. The St. Louis Cardinals may have stunted his development by bring him up from A ball to the majors too quickly, but they ended up getting his value up and sending him off.
Sierra played 86 games at AAA before being called up in late July, but bat .260/.287/.341 with two homers while in the minors. While he did have 17 stolen bases in those 86 games, it is a sharp decline from the 44 he put up in the minors combined over 101 games in 2017. These struggles translated to the majors as well, as Sierra hit just .190 with no homers over 154 at bats with the big league club in 2018.
Sierra is kind of in a bad place right now. He still has his speed, but hasn’t been showing it, swiping only at the major league level. The call-up in 2017 might have really damaged Sierra’s career by giving opposing pitchers the opportunity to find out how to attack him.
At the same time though, he just doesn’t seem to hit the ball very hard on average (83.5 mph average exit velocity). For a player who was once projected to be a Carlos Gonzales type player, this is disappointing.
The Marlins aren’t going to competitive in 2019 and he may have an outfield spot offered to him, but he needs to add some muscle to his frame to add to the slug and take that next step.
Zac Gallen is another young prospect that is on the verge of the majors for the Marlins. In 2017, at the ripe age of 21, he rose from High A, all the way to AAA within the Cardinals organization. He started 26 games with a 2.93 ERA and 7.4 K/9. He profiles as a 3-4 starter ceiling, and I believe that’s what he will be for the Marlins if all goes well.
Zac Gallen now sits as the Marlins number 20 prospect, but he is only that low because they reloaded their farm substantially in the last year or so.
Gallen was a pitcher that the St. Louis Cardinals have lots of: high-floor, low-ceiling starting pitchers with good control and solid stuff. He is a great organizational depth player and will probably carve out a solid MLB career, but he was also expendable in St. Louis.
In 2018, he pitched the entire year at the Marlins’ AAA affiliate. As a 22 year old, he did what you would expect from a future mid to back end of the rotation arm. Gallen started 25 games and saw his strikeout rate rise, as he bumped that number to 9.2 K/9, and paired it with a 3.65 ERA.
Gallen has developed quickly since being drafted. At just 23 years of age, he should see some Major League time this year, as he doesn’t really have much left to prove at AAA and deserves at least a look in the bullpen especially with the Marlins not being competitive.
A Step Back for Ozuna
As I said earlier, St. Louis Cardinals fans got so excited for Ozuna when he came from Miami, neon sleeve and all. That anticipation soon flatlined, as what we got on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment.
Ozuna finished the year batting .280/.325/.433 with just 23 homers and 88 RBIs. Yes, that is a solid stat line, but not what we wanted out of our cleanup hitter who was supposed to fix our offensive problems and be a force for the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of the order.
Ozuna’s decline seems to stem from from two things. First, he was due for natural regression. Ozuna’s 2016, quite frankly, came out of nowhere. I’m not saying that it was luck, but he was due to regress at least a little bit. However, nobody expected the regression to throw him back down to just another good complimentary player that the Cardinals already have a plethora of.
The second reason for this was a nagging shoulder injury. The injury was first a problem in 2016 and during the offseason before 2017, Ozuna did not do enough to fix the issue. This negligence led to him having a throwing velocity of 77.9 mph, dead last in the MLB. Shoulder issues very clearly impact both throwing and swinging, so it was obvious that Ozuna’s shoulder was bothering him.
Mozeliak was adamant in October that Ozuna not fixing his arm this offseason was not an option. He said that Ozuna needs to take his shoulder injury “very seriously”, so that’s exactly what he did.
About two weeks after Mo made these comments, Ozuna had a minor surgery to clean up his right shoulder, and that should hopefully help him regain his swing and arm in 2019. He should be ready to go for Spring Training as well, so things should start off without a hitch.
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Ozuna is entering his walk year, and it is a general consensus that the Cardinals are not planning on resigning him as things stand. Hopefully, the fact that he is about to enter free agency will be able to squeeze a great year out of him, as it has for many other players in the past.
Another point that is somewhat overlooked that makes it easier for Ozuna to perform in 2019 is the Cardinals’ addition of Paul Goldschmidt. During Ozuna’s breakout 2016, he batted next to Stanton, which obviously always helps.
Adding another masher to the lineup will help Ozuna see better pitches to hit, and anything to help Ozuna be the player the Cardinals traded for is more than welcomed.
Overall, we will still have to see how Ozuna’s last year of his contract goes and how the prospects progress to tell who ‘won’ the trade. I wish the best to Alcantara, Sierra, and Gallen, but I hope that Ozuna’s shoulder cleanup sends him back to the player he was in 2016, which would make him worth the trade for the St. Louis Cardinals.