Two years after the Cardinals made a big move in aquiring Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins via trade, the outfielder is on the free-agent market for the first time in his career. He is tied to Draft-pick compensation if he signs with a new team after being one of 10 players to receive the $17.8 million qualifying offer.
Below is a list of the latest news and rumors surrounding Ozuna.
Ozuna seeking multiyear contract after declining QO
Nov. 14: Ozuna had $17.8 million on the table from the Cardinals in the form of the one-year qualifying offer. He chose to decline that Thursday, meaning he and his representation must be confident in the likelihood of securing a multiyear contract.
Ozuna technically was a free agent even while deciding what to do about the qualifying offer, which was extended on Nov. 4. Over that 10-day period, a number of reports popped up indicating that several clubs are interested in the slugging outfielder, including the Reds, White Sox, Rangers, Phillies and yes, the Cardinals, too.
That certainly played no small role in Ozuna's choice to push for something more than just a one-year pact. Given his age (he turned 29 this month) and quality offensive production, it's likely Ozuna will be able to leverage a few interested suitors against each other to land a deal for multiple seasons -- although whether he'll be able to beat the $17.8 million salary on a per-year basis remains to be seen.
Ozuna garnering enough interest to spurn qualifying offer
Nov. 12: It always seemed unlikely -- but perhaps not entirely inconceivable -- that Ozuna would accept the $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Cardinals. Well, now it's all but guaranteed that he will eschew the offer and seek a multiyear deal on the open market, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.
That doesn't mean a return to St. Louis is off the table, however. Ozuna has a "nice market" of approximately seven clubs, per Heyman, who notes that the Cards not only are one of those teams but also discussing a potential multiyear pact with the 29-year-old outfielder. The Reds also are showing some interest, according to Heyman.
For context, only six of the 80 players to receive a qualifying offer prior to 2019 have accepted it, most recently Hyun-Jin Ryu last year.
In assessing Ozuna's market, MLB.com's Mike Petriello took a look at why the slugger tends to underperform on certain metrics, especially since joining the Cardinals.
Are Puig, Castellanos more attractive options than Ozuna?
Nov. 8: In many ways, Puig and fellow free agent Marcell Ozuna have been virtually the same player over the past three seasons, as Eno Sarris points out in his article for The Athletic (subscription required) breaking down some intriguing mid-level free agents.
In that span, Puig has posted a 19.7 percent strikeout rate, an 8.9 percent walk rate, a .212 ISO and -6 Outs Above Average. Ozuna? A 19.8 percent strikeout rate, an 8.8 percent walk rate, a .206 ISO and -6 OAA. Ozuna recorded a better wRC+ (121 to Puig's 112) in those three years, but that number is buoyed by his 2017 season (143 wRC+), which has proven to be an outlier. Both are right-handed hitters who will soon turn 29 years old, and Puig is faster and has a better arm.
When Ozuna's qualifying offer is factored in, Puig might just be the more attractive free agent. If Ozuna rejects the QO he received from the Cardinals, other teams will need to forfeit one or more Draft picks to sign him. Puig was ineligible for a QO after being traded to the Indians in July.
Then there's Nicholas Castellanos, another right-handed-hitting free-agent corner outfielder with no qualifying offer attached to him. Castellanos is just 27 years old, and over the past three years has recorded a .218 ISO with a 121 wRC+. Castellanos also improved his OAA number from -24 in 2018 to -7 last season, while Ozuna went from -1 to -8.
Cardinals' limited flexibility could spell change for Ozuna
Nov. 5: St. Louis is awaiting Ozuna's decision regarding the one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer it extended to him Monday, and if he rejects the offer, the Cardinals' limited payroll flexibility might negatively impact their chances to re-sign Ozuna in free agency.
The Athletic's Mark Saxon reports that Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. confirmed in Tuesday's end-of-season news conference that the Redbirds' 2020 payroll will remain at roughly the same amount (approximately $162 million) that it was in '19. Accounting for the 11 Cardinals players signed to long-term contracts, the club's arbitration-eligible players and its remaining players who could re-sign somewhere close to the league minimum salary of $555,555, Saxon estimates that St. Louis' '20 payroll would already creep up toward $157 million before taking Ozuna into consideration.
Saxon writes that the Cardinals could only take on significant contracts this offseason by either trading one of its players under contract or spending way more on their 2020 roster than they did in previous years. But he rules out St. Louis as a team that would flirt with the $208 million competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold, and there also doesn't appear to be a clear-cut trade candidate on the roster that would clear up a significant amount of financial space. If Ozuna does reject the offer to seek a substantial multiyear free-agent contract, his former club might be hesitant to step up to the plate.
Cards could be planning Ozuna reunion
Nov. 4: The Cardinals extending Ozuna a qualifying offer could be the first step toward bringing the free-agent outfielder back to St. Louis -- even if he doesn't end up accepting it.
According to a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel, the Cardinals had recent talks with Ozuna's agent, Melvin Roman, and plan to meet with Ozuna's camp within the next 10 days to discuss a multiyear deal.
That 10-day period is the same timeframe Ozuna has to accept or reject the qualifying offer, a one-year, $17.8 million deal for 2020. If Ozuna rejects the offer to test free agency, that could limit his external market, because other teams would have to give up Draft pick compensation to sign him.
Will Ozuna be hampered by the qualifying offer?
Nov. 4: The Cardinals, as expected, extended the one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer to Ozuna on Monday, making the outfielder one of 10 players who received the offer. St. Louis will now receive Draft pick compensation if Ozuna signs a free-agent deal elsewhere this offseason, and in turn, Ozuna's new club would have to surrender such compensation.
That could have a significant impact on Ozuna's market. A pair of big-name free agents in Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel had to wait until after this past June's MLB Draft to find acceptable offers on the market, and both pitchers arguably had a more consistent track record than Ozuna, who's gone through some ups and downs in his career. Mike Moustakas is a position player who also felt the impact after he rejected the Royals' QO after 2017, signing consecutive one-year contracts (with the Royals, then the Brewers) that earned him only $14.2M over two years. There's an argument to be made for Ozuna to accept the qualifying offer and try to build up his value in 2020, the same way Moustakas this season did before re-entering the market.
Does anyone stand out among the top free-agent outfielders?
Nov. 3: Unlike last offseason, when Bryce Harper, Michael Brantley, A.J. Pollock and Andrew McCutchen were free agents, the outfield market this year lacks star power.
Teams seeking a center fielder will likely need to look to trade for one, with Starling Marte and Jackie Bradley Jr. among the potential candidates to be dealt.
There are a number of similar free-agent options available for clubs in need of a corner outfielder, headlined by Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Avisaíl García. All four bat from the right-handed side of the plate, and none is particularly known for his defense, though Puig has had his moments in the past and García has the tools to be a solid fielder.
J.D. Martinez could make the market even more crowded by opting out of his deal (three years, $62.5 million), but he has been more of a designated hitter over the past two years, perhaps limiting his suitors to American League teams.
Here's how Castellanos, Ozuna, Puig and García compare to each other statistically.
1) Castellanos (121)
2) García (112)
3) Ozuna (110)
4) Puig (101)
T-1) Ozuna (121)
T-1) Castellanos (121)
3) García (117)
4) Puig (112)
FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, 2019
1) Castellanos (2.8)
2) Ozuna (2.6)
3) García (1.8)
4) Puig (1.2)
1) Ozuna (10.4)
2) Castellanos (7.2)
3) García (6.1)
4) Puig (6.0)
Castellanos and Ozuna seem to be neck and neck as the top two outfielders available, and García improved his standing with a rebound campaign in 2019. Puig surprisingly comes in fourth in each category, but teams might place added value in his marketability and postseason experience.
Ozuna among most intriguing free-agent cases
Oct. 28: Will Ozuna be one of the best available sluggers on the Hot Stove, or a free agent who comes with several question marks?
The answer might be yes to both. MLB.com's David Adler points out that Ozuna's Statcast batted-ball metrics were elite in several areas in 2019, including his hard-hit rate, barrel-per-batted-ball rate, and overall quality of contact -- though he was also among MLB's unluckiest hitters. Ozuna's solid campaign at the plate (29 HR, 107 OPS+) could, and perhaps should, have been even better.
But there are questions on the other side of the ball with Ozuna, as MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince notes. He was prone to very conspicuous lapses in left field, including in the postseason for St. Louis, and possesses one of the Majors' weakest outfield arms. Furthermore, the Cardinals may extend the one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer to Ozuna, which could make other teams wary of signing him if it means surrendering Draft pick compensation. Ozuna might be one of the rare players who accepts a qualifying offer, rather than test a free-agent market that has been tough on one-dimensional position players in recent years.
Plenty of intrigue surrounds Ozuna's future in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.