LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Rebuffed by Giancarlo Stanton last week, the Cardinals returned to the Marlins' outfield to find another answer in their search for an offensive upgrade.
That pivot brought them to Marcell Ozuna, who officially became a Cardinal on Thursday, one day after the club reached a trade agreement with the Marlins. In exchange for Ozuna, St. Louis sent outfielder Magneuris Sierra and pitchers Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano to Miami, which had been heavily scouting the Cards' system during the clubs' discussions about Stanton.
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"There are only so many opportunities you get to acquire these types of players, and we decided that we needed to do something, so we went after that," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said before returning to St. Louis on Thursday. "We really feel like we're fortunate to be in this spot. We feel like this is the middle-of-the-order type hitter that we've been looking for, and it certainly improves our lineup."
The Cardinals' offense is coming off a season in which it ranked seventh in the National League with 761 runs scored and eighth with a club OPS of .760. They lacked what Mozeliak defined as that "feared hitter" in the middle of the order.
That's why, when the Marlins' sale to a new ownership group was finalized in September, the Cardinals almost immediately reached out to let them know they had interest in any three of the team's outfielders -- Stanton, Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Miami preferred to start by discussing Stanton. When that didn't work, Ozuna became the target.
"He's always someone that we've gotten to see a lot of over the years, just being a [Spring Training] neighbor in Jupiter," Mozeliak said. "And whenever I watched him, I was like, 'He could be so good.' I always sort of wondered why he wasn't. What do great players do that other players don't? When they do things, they make it look easy. He always had a quick bat, would hit the ball hard, and I always just sort of wondered why he didn't do more. And clearly, last year he did."
Ozuna, 27, had a breakout 2017 season in which he posted a .312/.376/.548 slash line while being named to the National League All-Star team for the second time. He hit 37 home runs and collected 124 RBIs -- totals that would have been team highs for St. Louis in '17 -- in 159 games. All but two of his starts came in left field, where he was a Gold Glove Award winner.
Ozuna became the third outfielder since 2003 to hit .310 with at least 30 homers and 120 RBIs. He led all NL cleanup hitters with a .548 slugging percentage and .924 OPS, and he finished fourth among all NL players in total bases.
"Ozuna is one of those names that you have to have great respect [for], especially as much as we see him, not just through the season, but in Spring Training," manager Mike Matheny said. "[We're] trying to show our fan base the commitment that we have to try and make our team better."
Ozuna will stay in left for the Cardinals, who plan to use Tommy Pham in center field and William Fowler in right. It's an alignment the Cards can keep for at least the next two seasons, because Ozuna will not become a free agent until after the 2019 season. He's eligible for arbitration this year.
The trickle-down effect continued further, too, as adding another outfielder to the 40-man roster gave the Cardinals additional incentive to trade others. Sierra is now out of the mix, as is Stephen Piscotty, who was traded to the A's on Thursday. The Cards still have a healthy crop of young outfielders on their 40-man roster with Randal Grichuk, Harrison Bader, Tyler O'Neill and Oscar Mercado.
The Cardinals also retained several high-ceiling prospects to deal if they decide to address any remaining needs via trade. Acquiring Ozuna cost the club its No. 6 (Sierra), No. 9 (Alcantara) and No. 14 (Gallen) prospects, but St. Louis did not have to part with top pitching prospects Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver or Dakota Hudson.
Alcantara, who was groomed as a starter during his climb through the Minor League system, arrived in the Majors in September and made eight relief appearances. He features a fastball that can reach triple digits in velocity and an advanced breaking ball.
Sierra made his MLB debut last season as well, making the jump from Class A to the Majors in May. He tallied 19 hits, all singles, in 22 games. Gallen reached Triple-A last season, while Castano hasn't yet pitched above the Short-Season level.
"We do feel like we were dealing from a strength, but we acquired something we didn't have," Mozeliak said. "Historically, we've always tried to keep our prospects. But to get this type of hitter, we knew we were going to have to give up something that was going to be a little uncomfortable."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Although replicating a memorable 2017 season (37 homers, 124 RBIs, .312 batting average) will still be a tall task, Ozuna should be a better fantasy option with the Cardinals than he would have been with the Marlins. Having posted an outstanding average exit velocity last year (90.7 mph, per Statcast™), the slugger could hit over .290 with at least 30 homers and 95 RBIs in '18. Likely to be a major asset, Ozuna can be selected as early as Round 3 in mixed-league drafts. Conversely, Grichuk and Jose Martinez could struggle to find the necessary playing time for mixed-league consideration with Ozuna joining Pham and Fowler in the Cards' outfield.