MIAMI -- His smile and fun-loving nature never left, and now finally, Marcell Ozuna is back on the playing field.
It's welcome news for the Marlins.
Recovered from left thumb surgery, Ozuna has picked up playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic for the Gigantes del Cibao. The Miami outfielder, who turns 23 on Tuesday, played in his first game on Nov. 2, and he has thus far appeared in three games, going 2-for-12 with an RBI.
"We're happy to have him healthy," Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said.
Ozuna's rookie season with the Marlins was cut short on July 22, when he injured his thumb while making a diving catch at Colorado. A few days later, he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament and an avulsion fracture.
By September, Ozuna was hitting with the Marlins in Miami, along with continuing his throwing and conditioning programs.
Because he appeared in just 70 big league games, the Marlins were agreeable to Ozuna playing in the offseason.
"We talked internally about giving him the opportunity to go and play winter ball," Hill said. "We thought it was a great time for him last year in speeding up his clock and seeing pitches and working on his strike zone. It really made a huge difference in his overall development."
If healthy, Ozuna will enter Spring Training as a front-runner to start in the outfield, either in left or center. Giancarlo Stanton is anchored in right field, and Christian Yelich can play left and center field.
Ozuna doesn't ideally profile as a center fielder, but he has a strong arm, and he has enough speed to handle the position. His injury occurred while playing in center.
Defensively, Jake Marisnick is more of a true center fielder, but his offense may need more development at Triple-A. Like Ozuna, Marisnick will be competing for an outfield spot in the spring. Justin Ruggiano offers an option as either a backup or starter.
Miami's biggest offseason priority is upgrading the league's lowest-rated offense. Heading into Monday's General Managers Meetings in Orlando, Fla., the team makes no secret that it is searching for bats. The Marlins are looking for pieces to place around Stanton, and Ozuna is a viable option.
"You look at our four consecutive losing seasons, and our first 100-loss season [since 1998]," Hill said. "We were very pleased with the development of our pitching, but we still lost 100 games. Obviously, we need to score more runs."
Since Ozuna signed with the Marlins in 2008, he has been a run producer at every level. Before being promoted from Double-A Jacksonville at the end of April, Ozuna batted .333 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 10 games with the Suns.
In 2012, while at Class A Jupiter, Ozuna belted 24 homers and drove in 95 runs in 129 games.
Fun-loving by nature, Ozuna quickly gained the respect of his teammates with his all-out hustle and unlimited energy. In his rookie season, he showed promise -- batting .265 with 17 doubles, four triples, three home runs and 32 RBIs.
Ozuna still has to demonstrate more plate discipline, and he is a high strikeout candidate -- fanning 57 times in 275 big league at-bats. In winter ball, he struck out four times in his first 12 at-bats.
From the Marlins' standpoint, though, the winter is more about repetition than results for Ozuna.
"I think we want to continue that process for him and allow him to make up some of the ABs that he lost due to the injury," Hill said.
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro.