St. Louis Cardinals: Get ready to welcome back Marcell Ozuna

Reports from the free-agent Hot Stove, plus recent outfield moves by the St. Louis Cardinals, make it more likely than ever that Marcell Ozuna will return for at least one more year.

It is being solidly reported that free agent Marcell Ozuna’s landing spots are down to the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals, his home for the last two years. Since the Cardinals and Ozuna are a better fit for each other, it is likely that the announcement of the righthander’s return to St. Louis, is imminent.

For a good chunk of the regular season, plus the early part of the off-season, Redbirds fans had all but written off seeing Ozuna in a birds-on-the-bat uniform in 2020. This was because the front office’s silence during the team’s 2019 division-championship winning campaign about an extension of Ozuna’s contract spoke volumes.

The Cardinals did extend a qualifying offer (QO) to Ozuna in the offseason, however, which evinced a willingness to welcome Ozuna back for another season for the not inconsiderable sum of $17.8 million. This also meant that any team pilfering Ozuna would owe the Cardinals a top draft pick. (More about the significance of the QO pick below).

The slugger rejected the offer, but it was around that time that things changed. The market at first for Ozuna – and free agents in general – seemed robust. This was a marked change from the tepid 2018-2019 market. The Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Texas Rangers were all reported to be interested in Ozuna.

Then the White Sox got busy. Really, really busy. They signed Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Keuchel as free agents. They traded a prospect for Nomar Mazara.

Seemingly, before the decade was done, the White Sox were done. And it seemed unlikely that they would ransom their future any further – plus dip into a now-depleted salary treasury – for the 29-year-old Ozuna. Sure enough, the Southsiders fell off from the Ozuna rumors List.

The Diamondbacks signed right fielder Kole Calhoun and even more importantly for the pocketbook, Madison Bumgarner ($85M, 5-year deal). The Diamondbacks’ venom for free agents seemed mostly spent.

The Braves have signed five free agents so far (to the Cardinals one) including Cole Hamels and Will Smith. But they are most likely waiting on third-baseman Josh Donaldson to decide. This has no doubt dampened their interest in spending big for Ozuna and that is why we have heard nothing lately in connection with the Braves and Ozuna.

However, the National League Eastern Division champions could reemerge in the Ozuna hunt if they wish to try to replace Donaldson’s right-handed power via an outfield upgrade.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds shocked the baseball world by being “all-in” for the 2020 campaign … perhaps sensing an opportunity with a weak National League Central division. They gave 31-year old infielder-slugger Mike Moustakas his first multi-year deal as a free agent. But the Reds have recently been counted out of the free agent speculation for Ozuna after they signed Shogo Akiyama from Japan to add to their left field depth.

That leaves the Cardinals and the Rangers. Two things need to be said about the way the market shook out at this point.

First, it is surprising that given Ozuna’s fielding deficiencies (I know, I know, by some metrics he comes out as not too bad) that the vast majority of teams showing interest have been National League teams.

The possible lesson here is that the designated hitter, today, is not so much a position to be filled by an everyday slugger (who just happens to have poor fielding) as it is a tool to provide roster flexibility to a manager searching on a daily basis for the hot offensive hand. Therefore, everybody has to field. Ozuna’s fielding deficiencies don’t get to hide in the American League.

Revealingly, it is the National League teams who have witnessed first-hand the exit velocity of Ozuna’s bat, who are the most interested in him and are willing to let fielding take the hindmost.

Second, the impact of the lost draft pick, which fans tend to forget about, looms much larger than was previously thought. It is indeed being blamed for scaring teams away, especially teams that would be trying to rebuild around a proven cleanup hitter, since rebuilding and giving up a draft pick are somewhat contradictory.

There are other economic forces that may militate for Ozuna re-matriculating with the Cardinals. If Ozuna returns to the Cardinals for 2020, he will be playing at a place he says he loves. If he can put up another solid season, he will be an attractive free agent in 2021, but this time sans the punitive draft pick.

And if his performance is closer to his 147 OPS+ final season with the Miami Marlins than to his 107 OPS+ seasons with the Cardinals, Ozuna will be the prize free agent of the 2021 class.

For the offense-anemic Cardinals, another season of Ozuna at reasonable cost and risk would be a great insurance policy against a 2020 outfield-bust (whether it be caused by a rookie bust or a reemergence of the hitting woes plaguing a couple of our veterans in recent years).

For the Texas Rangers’ part, they already have a left fielder with much higher OPS than Ozuna, who is also younger. His name is Willie Calhoun. Plus they seem to be more interested in free agent outfielder-third baseman Nicholas Castellanos (he, too, a designated hitter candidate because of questionable fielding).

Castellanos, a career American Leaguer except for his prodigious two months with the Cubs, is much more familiar to the Rangers and is younger than Ozuna.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have recently reduced their outfield depth by shedding two rookies who were to be given a chance to challenge for an outfield spot in Spring Training and one veteran. They traded Randy Arozarena and Jose Martinez this week, and just before Christmas, they sold Adolis Garcia (to their Ozuna competitors, Texas, ironically).

Thus, the front office seemed to be paving the road for a possible return of Ozuna to leftfield at Busch Stadium, if the talented Dominican would so choose. Meanwhile, Texas had been gathering other outfielders not named Ozuna.

Next: MLB player comparisons for top prospects

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It would be surprising now if Ozuna didn’t return. If true, it would be a win-win for both Ozuna and the Redbirds. The best thing the Best Fans in Baseball can do is get ready to give Ozuna the encouragement he needs after a disappointing venture into the free agent market. Remember, a 2017 Beast Mode Ozuna still lurks inside.

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