Pros, cons and fits for free-agent-to-be Ozuna

October 16th, 2019

The Cardinals pivoted to in the Fish market known as the 2017-18 offseason when another Marlins outfielder, , made it clear he would not be waiving his no-trade clause to come to St. Louis. Dealing for Ozuna, who was coming off a splendid ’17 but had an iffy overall track record, was a bold bid for a Cardinals team in serious need of a middle-of-the-order presence, but Ozuna’s performance with the Cards in the time since can best be described as solid yet unremarkable.

With St. Louis swept out of the National League Championship Series by the Nationals and Ozuna entering free agency, it would be difficult to make a full-throated argument in favor of the Cardinals doing whatever it takes to bring Ozuna back, given his defensive concerns and less-than-stellar Cards career to date. And yet, Ozuna would be a really compelling free agent, perhaps the best full-time outfielder in free agency this winter.

Let’s assess the market for the NL Central champions’ most notable free agent.

What are Ozuna’s key selling points?

He’ll be just 29 in 2020, and he’s not far removed from a 2017 season in which he slashed .312/.376/.548 and played home games in cavernous Marlins Park.

And while Ozuna’s 2019 numbers weren’t extraordinary, his batted-ball metrics from Statcast point to the 19th-highest expected weighted on-base average (.379) and 17th-highest expected slugging percentage (.523) among those with at least 500 plate appearances. He’s also coming off the highest walk rate (11.3 percent) of his career.

What’s the knock on Ozuna?

His .243/.330/.474 slash in what was actually a bit of a bounceback 2019 (he dealt with a shoulder issue the previous season) is, again, solid but unexceptional. Ozuna’s OPS+ was seven percent better than the league average.

In left field, Ozuna had a negative defensive WAR (minus-0.4) and a below-average Outs Above Average rating (minus-8), per Statcast. Unnecessarily scaling the wall in pursuit of what turned out to be a ground-out double back in April was amusing, but losing an Anthony Rendon flare while making a pop-up slide in a crucial inning of Game 3 of the NLCS was less so.

Will Ozuna get the qualifying offer?

The qualifying offer this year is reportedly set at $17.8 million. That’s a 45-percent increase on what the Cards paid Ozuna in 2019 ($12.25M), and that might seem a difficult raise to justify. St. Louis will have to assess how such a commitment would impact the rest of their roster construction, because the Cards already have $138.7M committed to just nine players (Yadi Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, Carlos Martínez, Kolten Wong and Brett Cecil). Were they to add the Ozuna qualifying offer to that tab, the payroll would go up to $156.5M -- just $6M shy of last year’s franchise-record Opening Day tally, before any other external additions or internal raises.

With all that said, there has long been room for the Cards to stretch that payroll without venturing into luxury tax territory, and one-year commitments obviously aren’t as painful or punitive as multi-year deals that don’t work out. Ozuna -- who says he would love to stay in St. Louis -- might be the rare candidate to take the qualifying offer (for reasons we’ll get to in a second), but that shouldn’t scare the Cardinals off from extending it.

If Ozuna receives the qualifying offer, how does it affect his market?

The short answer is that it could have a considerable impact. Take an up-and-down career and add in the attachment to draft pick compensation at a time when both picks and the attached bonus pool money are highly valued, and his market could be muddled.

Remember: Teams who sign a free agent who received and rejected the qualifying offer lose one or more draft picks. The location of that pick depends on the signing club’s economic circumstances (that’s all explained in here.) That’s one reason why Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel waited until after this year’s Draft to sign with their new clubs.

is a recent example of a player in his late 20s who came to regret turning down the qualifying offer. It was a $17.4M offer after 2017, and Moustakas wound up signing consecutive one-year contracts (with the Royals, then the Brewers) that earned him $14.2M over two years.

So, there would be some argument for Ozuna to take the deal. He would have the 2020 season to try to build up his value (if the expected stats more properly align with the real stats, his value would shoot skyward) in a place where he’s grown comfortable, and he would no longer be eligible to receive the qualifying offer with the attached compensation a year from now.

Ozuna is an example of how this process becomes a fascinating cat-and-mouse game. Depending on where ownership is willing to take the payroll in 2020, the Cards might ultimately decide not to make the offer out of fear Ozuna accepts it and what that would mean for the rest of their financial picture.

Where might Ozuna land if he doesn’t return to the Cards?

Last year, the top outfielders not named in the open market pulled in the following:

A.J. Pollock, LAD: 4 years, $50M deal (12.5M average annual value)

Michael Brantley, HOU: 2 years, $32M ($16M AAV)

Andrew McCutchen, PHI: 3 years, $50M ($16.67M AAV)

While Ozuna is younger than all three of those guys were, that’s probably the general AAV range in which he would land. The question would come down to how many teams are involved in the bidding and, ergo, where the years wind up.

Here are some clubs that are interesting fits for Ozuna:

Padres: There’s a clear need in left field for a team still trying to turn the corner.

Rays: They had baseball’s lowest payroll this year and aren’t likely to win many bidding wars, but ’s free agency and the value they place on hard-hit metrics could make them a factor here.

Reds: Their 2019 offense was nowhere near the force they expected it to be, they expect to spend some money this winter, and Ozuna’s Statcast metrics would almost assuredly be better rewarded in Great American Ball Park.

Indians: is entering free agency, and Cleveland has been trying to stabilize the outfield for quite a while. But it seems doubtful that there would be room in the budget for Ozuna.

White Sox: They’ve got money to spend as well as right field and DH at-bats to offer as they try to make their move up the AL Central ladder.

Braves: They have an option on for 2020 but could use another big bat in their lineup.

D-backs: They freed up a ton of future payroll with the deal, and a player like Ozuna could be a difference-maker for a team that came surprisingly close to a playoff spot.

Giants: Starting pitching is the area of focus, but if the Giants do make a serious effort to contend (hard to say), then Ozuna would certainly upgrade the outfield.