ST. LOUIS -- With adjoining complexes and a shared spring stadium in Florida, the Cardinals and Marlins enjoy a unique familiarity with each other. The setup has also allowed each organization to sneak a peek at the other's up-and-coming talent.And so it was with that advantage that president of baseball
ST. LOUIS -- With adjoining complexes and a shared spring stadium in Florida, the Cardinals and Marlins enjoy a unique familiarity with each other. The setup has also allowed each organization to sneak a peek at the other's up-and-coming talent.
And so it was with that advantage that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak long ago found himself intrigued by what he saw of a young player signed out of the Dominican Republic. Years before Marcell Ozuna became an All-Star or a middle-of-the-order threat, he had attracted the attention and curiosity of someone on the other side of the facility.
"Whenever I watched him, I was like, 'He could be so good,'" Mozeliak recalled. "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."
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What Mozeliak once saw as potential is now going to be pivotal to the Cardinals' success in 2018. Of all the players, position battles and developments to keep an eye on over the next several weeks, arguably the most notable will be Ozuna.
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He'll be returning to a familiar Spring Training site, but in a new uniform and surrounded by unfamiliar expectations. Whereas the Marlins once saw him as a piece in a rebuilding plan, the Cardinals hope Ozuna becomes a cornerstone figure in their postseason pursuit.
"I'm happy to play for them," Ozuna said. "Now, you play for a reason. You play for a good team that may get in the playoffs. That team fights every year for the playoffs. That, I like."
Over the course of Spring Training, the Cardinals will not only get a glimpse of what Ozuna can add, but they'll also work to fill in others around him. He's expected to be the team's starting left fielder, though that's assuming the Cardinals are pleased with how Tommy Pham (center) and William Fowler (left) take to new spots in the outfield.
There's the question, too, of batting order configuration. It seems likely that Ozuna will slot into the cleanup spot, the same place he settled into with the Marlins a year ago. But with flexibility in where they deploy Fowler, Pham and Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals aren't committing to anything yet. Spring Training will offer the trial run.
It will also provide the first indication as to whether Ozuna's 2017 production is repeatable. In giving up four players -- including three Top 15 prospects -- the Cardinals were willing to go all-in with their projection that Ozuna's standout season wasn't a fluke.
After slashing .265/.314/.427 with a .741 OPS over his first four big league seasons, Ozuna took his production to another level in '17. He tallied 37 home runs and 124 RBIs while hitting .312/.376/.548 with a .924 OPS. Ozuna complemented his Silver Slugger honors with his first Gold Glove Award.
It was the sort of breakthrough that Mozeliak had anticipated for years.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.