ST. LOUIS -- They had laughed about the possibility before, with Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez telling Marcell Ozuna that they were going to find a way to get him to St. Louis.
And sure enough, they did.
On Thursday afternoon, Ozuna officially became teammates with Molina and Martinez, the latter of whom he has been close to for years. Just last month, Ozuna celebrated his 27th birthday in Martinez's home, neither knowing at the time that the Cardinals would soon execute a five-player trade to acquire one of 2017's most productive National League players.
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"That nervousness [about coming to St. Louis] went away when I started to reflect on those encounters and exchanges with Carlos and Yadi," Ozuna said, with Cardinals assistant general manager Moises Rodriguez providing the translation. "If I'm being traded to the Cardinals, at least I'm being traded to a group of guys that I know. That anxiety and that nervousness went away."
A formal introduction in St. Louis will come later, perhaps at the organization's annual Winter Warm-Up event in mid-January. For now, though, Ozuna relayed his message to an unfamiliar fan base during a 30-minute conference call with local reporters on Friday.
"The fans are really going to enjoy me," he said. "I'm going to give them a reason to smile."
Despite the flurry of rumors about a pending Marlins fire sale, Ozuna entered the offseason with the assumption that his future in Miami was secure. He had become immune to hearing and reading his name in various trade rumors, mostly because Ozuna had done so for years without anything actually transpiring.
With two years remaining before free agency and a projected salary of between $10-11 million for 2018, Ozuna figured he'd be spared as the organization went forward with its cost-cutting efforts. Only recently did he start to wonder if such security was fading.
"I never thought I would be traded," Ozuna said. "I thought maybe the higher-salary players would be the ones [to go] and I would be one of the ones kept. When the rumors and what was being published was becoming more frequent and on the news every night, I started to get a little nervous."
That nervousness has since faded to anticipation for Ozuna, who spoke excitedly about the opportunity to join a club that is a perennial postseason contender. In five seasons with the Marlins, Ozuna never played on a team that won even 80 games.
He'll take over in left field, a position at which Ozuna won his first Gold Glove in 2017, and will presumably hit fourth in the Cardinals' lineup. Last year he finished first among all four-hole hitters in the NL (minimum 400 at-bats) with a .548 slugging percentage and .924 OPS. His .372 on-base percentage and .306 average from that spot ranked second. His 88 RBIs placed him third.
The key, Ozuna said, in making the leap from being a talented player to a budding star came in the offseason work he did leading into the year. He's following the same blueprint -- one that former Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds helped craft -- this winter.
The only difference this time is that the results will play out in front of a new audience.
"It's almost like a blessing that I landed here," Ozuna said. "I've always known the Cardinals to be competitors, grinders. All the way to the end, they seem to be in the mix and in position to win. I'm very excited to be able to join that."