ST. LOUIS -- More than two months after the Cardinals extended Marcell Ozuna a one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer, the left fielder has signed elsewhere, and St. Louis is now tasked with filling the hole he’s left both in the lineup and in the outfield.
Ozuna signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the Braves on Tuesday night, a deal that’s only $200,000 more than the qualifying offer. The Cardinals had remained in contact with Ozuna and his agent, Melvin Roman, but apparently did not venture off that qualifying figure much, if at all, or offer the multiyear deal that Ozuna was looking for when he rejected the qualifying offer in November.
The Cardinals have another high Draft pick that will come after Competitive Balance Round B (No. 71). But their search now begins for a new cleanup hitter and new left fielder. Ozuna’s absence creates a path for young outfielders to garner significant playing time this year, but it remains to be seen who can replace Ozuna’s production. Over the past two seasons with the Cardinals, the 29-year-old hit .263 with 52 homers and a .777 OPS. And despite missing around five weeks with left finger fractures, he hit 29 homers with 89 RBIs and an .800 OPS in 2019.
While anything can still happen, the Cardinals’ roster seems set heading into Spring Training, especially after chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said this weekend at Winter Warm-Up that he does not see the 2020 payroll increasing from what he’s projecting it to be right now. That means the Cardinals are going to have to focus on internal improvement in the outfield for 2020.
Leading candidates: Tyler O'Neill and Lane Thomas
O’Neill and Thomas -- both 24-year-old right-handed hitters -- have excelled in the Minors, but have only gotten limited at-bats in the Majors. But the path to left field is now clear, and either one could take hold of it.
O’Neill plays primarily left field and had an .842 OPS and 11 homers in 41 games with Triple-A Memphis last year. In 2018, O’Neill hit .311/.385/.693 with 26 homers for the Redbirds. The power is there in the Minors, but O’Neill struggled to produce with the Cardinals; he had five homers but struck out 53 times in 141 at-bats last year. He’s also battled injuries the past two years, and his ability to stay on the field is a concern.
“I know I can play in this league,” O’Neill said Saturday at Winter Warm-Up. “I know I can excel in this league. I’m just going to play to the best of my ability. I know I can fill those shoes and win this job out here, so I’ve just gotta prove that."
Asked what he’s working on this offseason to be able to prove he belongs, O’Neill referenced plate discipline. He walked just 10 times in 2019.
“Stop swinging at balls in the dirt, maybe,” O’Neill said. “That’ll be a good start. That’s the thing, too, getting the limited at-bats I’ve had the last couple years, I just want to get up and I want to hit. I want to prove my worth. I need to take a step back sometimes and realize it’s good to walk. It’s good to let the other guy behind me take the torch, do something for the squad. It’s all maturity.”
Thomas stood out this year in his limited time in the Majors. In just 38 at-bats, he hit four homers and had a .316 average. The Cardinals were going to give him more playing time toward the end of the season, but Thomas broke his right wrist in late August, ending his season. He has been swinging this winter, so his injury should be a non-factor come spring.
Like O’Neill, Thomas has proved he can hit in the Minors. In 75 games with Memphis last year, he hit .268/.352/.460 with an .812 OPS. He hit .264 with an .823 OPS between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A in 2018.
“Lane made a great impression in his limited time in the big leagues last year,” general manager Michael Girsch said Sunday. “We know he’s an athlete, we know he can play defense. I think for the most of these guys, hitting the ground running offensively at Spring Training is going to be a big factor in sort of what they’re spring looks like and sort of how the season begins for each of them.”
Also in the mix: Rangel Ravelo and Justin Williams
Ravelo can play first base and outfield, and the 27-year-old could be looked at to fill the pinch-hit role that José Martínez had before being traded to the Rays. Ravelo hit .205 with two homers and 12 strikeouts in 39 at-bats with the Cardinals in 2019.
Williams, 24, spent most of 2019 with a hand and then a hamstring injury, but he impressed the Cardinals when he returned for 36 games in Memphis and hit .353/.437/.608 with a 1.045 OPS. He’s also the only left-hander in the group, and the Cardinals could use another lefty bat in the lineup. Williams spent some of the offseason getting at-bats in the Mexican Winter League, where he hit .274 in 31 games.
If they have good springs: Dylan Carlson and Austin Dean
Dean was acquired from the Marlins last week and put on the 40-man roster, so the Cardinals expect to see him compete in the spring. Adding Dean gives the Cardinals more depth into the Minors, especially if more of the young outfielders are on the 25-man roster.
In Miami, Dean was in a situation much like O’Neill and Thomas -- consistent at-bats in the Majors were hard to find. In 64 games last season, Dean hit .225 with a .665 OPS. But in Triple-A, he hit .337/.401/.635 with 18 home runs in 73 games. Once the Cardinals see what he can do, Dean could have a shot at cracking the Opening Day roster.
Then there’s Carlson, the Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The 20-year-old switch-hitting outfielder had a breakout 2019, earning All-Star honors and the Texas League Player of the Year. Over 108 games with Double-A Springfield, Carlson hit .281/.364/.518 with an .882 OPS and 21 home runs. When he was promoted to Triple-A Memphis late in the season, he had a 1.098 OPS over 18 games. If he continues that this season, he could make his debut.
“We view him as one of our most talented and prized prospects, but two things have to really happen,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “One is we want to give some opportunity to the players who are running out of options or are running out of time. And we also want to make we don't put him in a position where you necessarily have to take a step backwards.”
And the cleanup hitter is…?
None of these players may turn out to be the cleanup hitter the Cardinals need, especially after a season in which the team finished in the bottom half of runs scored (764), home runs (210) and slugging percentage (.415). But the front office and manager Mike Shildt emphasized this weekend that the goal was to create playing time for the young outfielders the Cardinals have, and a cleanup hitter will emerge throughout the spring and into the season.
Paul Goldschmidt spent most of the season hitting third, ahead of Ozuna, but Goldschmidt did hit .318 in 17 games batting fourth in 2019. Another option is Paul DeJong, who struggled with consistency but still put together a 30-home run season hitting all over the lineup.
“The good news is we were able to compete with guys in different places in the order, and I really feel that a balanced offense is just that,” Shildt said Sunday. “I really feel like we’re in a good spot with what that looks like. Clearly there are some questions out there about what that looks like ultimately, but that’s what Spring Training is for.”