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Best FA outfielder: Ozuna or Castellanos?

@AndrewSimonMLB
December 16, 2019

The Winter Meetings have come and gone. While there was no shortage of action this week in San Diego, the top two outfielders on the free-agent market both remain unsigned. That could change before too long, though. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos are among the candidates to be next in

The Winter Meetings have come and gone. While there was no shortage of action this week in San Diego, the top two outfielders on the free-agent market both remain unsigned.

That could change before too long, though. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos are among the candidates to be next in line, according to MLB's Mark Feinsand -- although they might have to wait for another big bat (third baseman Josh Donaldson) to clear the way.

Ozuna and Castellanos often are lumped together -- not only due to position, but also because they offer similar profiles. So it would make sense that their markets would overlap. The Reds are one club that has been connected to both players, with a lineup that could use reinforcements beyond free-agent acquisition Mike Moustakas.

But which player is the better buy? Let's break them down.

Age

This is a factor that can't be overlooked in any free-agent situation, especially with players drawing enough interest to land a deal for more than a year or two. Fortunately, in this case, Ozuna just turned 29 last month, and Castellanos will turn 28 during Spring Training -- so both are in a good spot.

Slight advantage: Castellanos

Qualifying offer

When the Tigers traded Castellanos to the Cubs on July 31, it not only sparked the slugger's late-season surge, but also made him ineligible to receive a qualifying offer. It turned out to be quite a one-two punch in favor of Castellanos' free-agency prospects.

On the other hand, the Cardinals made the one-year, $17.8 million offer to Ozuna, who turned it down. That means the team signing him would forfeit a prized Draft pick in 2020 (If the Cardinals re-signed Ozuna, they wouldn't lose a pick but also would not receive a compensatory pick). It certainly doesn't help.

Advantage: Castellanos

Power

Both players have spent seven years in the Majors, and their overall, surface-level results have been fairly similar: a .455 slugging percentage, 148 home runs, and .183 isolated power for Ozuna; a .471 SLG, 120 homers, and a .194 ISO for Castellanos. Ozuna has the best individual season, when he slugged .548 with 37 big flies for the 2017 Marlins.

Ozuna stands out more for his quality of contact, too, even if his results in St. Louis didn't quite live up to that level. He ranked in the 93rd percentile of MLB hitters this past season in average exit velocity, 96th percentile in hard-hit rate, and 91st percentile in expected slugging percentage. But Castellanos can crush the ball, too, and he did so far more after the trade to Chicago, tying for second in MLB in barrels (27) in August and September. Was that a blip, or did he unlock something permanent?

Slight advantage: Ozuna

Contact

Another thing these two have in common is they do not strike out a ton for modern sluggers. In 2019, the MLB strikeout rate was an all-time record 23 percent -- above both Castellanos (21.5 percent) and Ozuna (20.8 percent), who have lived in a similar range in recent years.

Both players do swing and miss a bit more than the average hitter, but they are aggressive in the strike zone -- and Castellanos in particular doesn't take many called strikes. So while neither player offers the upside of last year's premier free-agent outfielder (Bryce Harper), they also don't strike out on nearly the same level.

Advantage: Push

On-base ability

Just going by OBP, this is another neck-and-neck category between Castellanos (.326 career, .337 in 2019) and Ozuna (.329, .330 in '19), though it's not a strength for either player.

Castellanos has one of the game's highest chase rates on out-of-zone pitches (38.4 percent last season), and has never topped a 7.2-percent walk rate (The MLB average in 2019 was 8.5 percent). While a .243 batting average held down Ozuna's OBP last season, he also raised his walk rate to a career-high 11.3 percent. Ozuna is more disciplined than Castellanos, and if he can sustain that gain in free passes while his batting average bounces back to its level over the previous three seasons (.287), the results would be strong.

Slight advantage: Ozuna

Speed

Neither player is going to make tens of millions of dollars based on his wheels, but neither is exactly a plodding base-clogger, either. Ozuna nearly doubled his career total by swiping 12 bags last season, and he has added a bit of value on the bases over his career, per FanGraphs.

Castellanos hasn't been as productive, but he did have a small edge in average sprint speed in 2019 (27.9 feet per second vs. 27.4 ft/sec, both above the MLB average of 27). He also consistently got down the line better, posting 88 of the 100 fastest home-to-first times between the two of them this past season.

Slight advantage: Castellanos

Defense

There is a whole lot to consider here. Simply taking each player's career numbers in the outfield wouldn't be much of a comparison, with Ozuna (+25 Defensive Runs Saved, +28 Ultimate Zone Rating, -8 Outs Above Average) appearing far more competent than Castellanos (-36 DRS, -26 UZR, -33 OAA).

But the situation may be more complicated than that. Ozuna has not passed the eye test of late, making some notable flubs for the Cardinals -- and his OAA (a range-based Statcast metric) has declined from +3 to -1 to -8 over the past few seasons. Ozuna has also dealt with right shoulder woes that have visibly sapped his arm strength.

Castellanos, meanwhile, only converted to the outfield in late 2017. While the early results were extremely rough, he improved from -24 to -7 OAA in '19, showing an ability to make the plays he should -- even if highlights were rare. As MLB.com's Mike Petriello showed in much greater detail, there is real reason to think the inexperienced Castellanos could keep improving with the glove. He also doesn't have Ozuna's arm strength concerns, making 23 of the 25 hardest tracked throws between the two in 2019.

Advantage: Castellanos

Overall

There isn't much daylight between Castellanos and Ozuna in any one area. Given that, it wouldn't be a surprise if Ozuna was more productive going forward. In fact, the Steamer projections at FanGraphs give him the edge for 2020 -- with an .847 OPS and 3.1 WAR, compared to an .821 OPS and 1.5 WAR for Castellanos.

On the other hand, Castellanos is a year younger -- and at this point, may be the more athletic of the two. His defense seems to be trending up, rather than down, and the gains his bat showed in Chicago give hope that he has elevated his game to another level. The lack of Draft pick compensation attached to him is the cherry on top.

Advantage: Castellanos

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.