With two outfielders blocked for playing time and questions about Marcell Ozuna’s health and fitness, he and the St. Louis Cardinals will likely part ways next year.
It did not take long for the Marcell Ozuna situation to become clear. Though it may not have been the clarity the Cardinals were hoping to get. Though he may yet contribute to what looks to be a playoff-worthy 2019 squad, the 28-year old is not going to be the anchor of the St. Louis Cardinals outfield for years to come, as previously hoped for.
What a difference two weeks makes. Two weeks ago, the Cardinals were breaking camp; everyone could not have been more sanguine about Ozuna and his future. Scribes, including this author, were happy to lock him in at cleanup, no less. His Spring Training slash was decent enough for Spring Training: .231/.340/.462. His 2018 stats were a glass-half-empty/half-full situation, but folks were content to emphasize the latter.
But there was something about his last throw from the outfield in Pittsburgh on Monday (4/1), mounted on top of general shaky outfield play in Milwaukee the previous weekend, exacerbated by eight strikeouts in 22 plate appearances, finally capped by Manager Mike Shildt pulling his cleanup hitter out with the game on the line, that Cardinal Nation seemed to say, collectively, in one voice, “Why are we going through this charade?”
On Tuesday, even Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel was saying: “It’s safe to say the Cardinals won’t be courting Ozuna on a long-term deal”. Meanwhile, his colleague Ben Frederickson wrote a column which was basically a bill of indictment of everything Ozuna had done (and not done) from off-season to present.
And sure enough, by Wednesday the team had him get an MRI on his side. We know the team has been unafraid to use medical excuses for players who have just performed poorly and need a “time out.” Jose Martinez went 0-5 however in Ozuna’s spot so Ozuna was back in the lineup for the next game.
It appears to be Shildt’s intention to insert a late-inning defensive replacement for Ozuna. But twice that has meant playing “Where’s Waldo?” with our cleanup hitter when the Cardinals needed runs. The prospect of the Cardinals putting serious free agent money on the table in order to bet on a rebound of Ozuna to full vigor for multi-years into the future just seems remote now.
Ozuna has become a textbook case of “a player needing a fresh start with a new team” which is exactly what the free agency system was designed to provide. All the more because his agent is Scott Boras who will no doubt be touting a totally different player than the one the Cardinals front office – and the fans – see with their own eyes.
All of a sudden, there just appeared to be no viable path for Ozuna to stay a Cardinal beyond this season. It is not just his .219 BA or his 11 strikeouts versus one walk. Even if he mashed .300 the rest of the way, there would still be the questions about his age and condition. Would the Cardinals want to double down after this season? Put good money after bad? ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…’? Not likely.
Ozuna shows every sign of being a player who has just gotten prematurely old and is breaking down. In recent years we’ve seen an increase of not just pitchers with arm problems but also fielders (see Carpenter, Matt).
As a former student of the late Webster University professor Harry Cargas, who specialized in Holocaust studies and sports ethics and was a sports columnist himself (From the Cheap Seats) and who decried booing and other harsh criticism of a player, I am loath to unload.
However, even the mainstream press has been unabashed at suggesting that Ozuna himself is to blame for his failure to put the work in during the off-season and keep in touch with the team. Is that team going to reward him with a big fat contract extension?
What I see is a player that not only cannot throw with authority but has turned into a defensive liability (the second year running actually). Instead of the long graceful strides in the outfield that one would expect, he seems to be chopping his feet like a penguin. Some of his routes are questionable. He and center-fielder Harrison Bader seem to be unclear on who is going after what when it should manifest that Bader has the lead role out there.
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The question is, what to do about Ozuna if you’re not going to re-sign him? Do you try to get the most out of his motivation to have a great year leading into his free agency? Or do you think about cutting to the chase and moving him along to his “fresh start” now while you can still get value for him?
He becomes yet another recent Cardinal player who seems more suited to the designated hitter role (see Voit, Luke, Martinez, Jose and, arguably, Carpenter, Matt). Ozuna will not be happy if he is frequently sitting on the bench in St. Louis in 2019, rather than racking up the stats he will need to cash-in in free agency.
It is yet another sunk-costs problem for the Cardinals (see Fowler, Dexter). While with Fowler there is time and the commitment to wait for a turnaround, with Ozuna there is little time left, not much commitment, and very little patience inasmuch as Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill are getting it done and are under long-term team control. And two sunk-costs players in one outfield is at least one too many.
The only question that remains is, what caused a precipitous decline from this Marlins-era “big throws” video.
Looking back at pictures from his days in Miami versus now show a huge physical difference in physique.
Could it be just pure premature aging? Does this photo from 2019 look like a typical 28-year old? Or this one? Does this photo from September 20, 2017, with the Marlins look like a 26-year old? In baseball, we are used to players that reach a certain age where they do not move with the alacrity they once did, or who take longer to heal from pulls and strains… yet who maintain a feared hitting stroke that continues sometimes to age 40.
We are just not used to it happening to players in their 20s.
History lesson. There was a Cardinals player from back in the Whitey-ball era, David Green, from Nicaragua, which was torn by war when he came to America to play baseball, who was supposed to be 20-years old when the Cardinals acquired him and the youngest player in the league in 1981. But many baseball observers believed he was older. Here’s a look at Green.
Despite being a formidable player early on (third in the league in triples with 34 SB in 1983, top ten in Power-Speed # in 1984) he was out of baseball by age 26. He was either older or prematurely aged.
The DeWitts, in particular, will want to be careful about dispatching a player, by trade or non-tender, based on an assessment of true age. The senior statesman of the Dewitt clan, William O. Dewitt, when he was general manager of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s, defended his infamous Frank Robinson trade to the Baltimore Orioles by saying, “Robinson is not a young 30.” Robinson went out and won the Triple Crown, and the Orioles won their first World Series in franchise history. Robinson did have a receding hairline, however.
The Cardinals have not had great luck with some recent high-profile acquisitions like Ozuna, Greg Holland, Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Jordan Walden and now Andrew Miller. And though the “book” is still open on a few of these, in Ozuna’s case, his days as a Redbird are probably short. The Cardinals front office will have to improve its batting average on future acquisitions if the team is to stay competitive in the N.L. Central.