On Thursday, the Marlins relieved Dan Jennings of the unusual and unenviable circumstances of his employment with the team. It was not a shocking development, given owner Jeffrey Loria's reputation for firing and trading employees on a whim, but in this case there was a reason given for the fracturing of their relationship.
Dan Jennings and #Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria's relationship soured when Jennings played rookie Marcell Ozuna, going against Loria's wishes.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) October 29, 2015
If it seems like giving playing time to a young, star center fielder is a strange reason to fire a manager, that would be because it is.
Without a doubt, Marcell Ozuna had an up-and-down 2015 season — both figuratively, in terms of offensive performance, and literally, in terms of a mid-season demotion to triple-A New Orleans. Relative to his 3.7 fWAR breakout in 2014, Ozuna's 0.2 fWAR first half was a disappoint. Where last year he featured a 115 wRC+, he batted at a rate 25 percent below league-average in the season's first three months. However, he still produced numbers slightly above replacement level, and given his track record of performance, it was unusual to see a player sent back down to the minors after only half a season of breaking even.
Shocked as readers may be to hear it, there is the outside possibility that Loria had ulterior motives in his objection to Ozuna's playing time.
Since Ozuna was plucked from high-A ball to the majors in 2013, he accumulated service time quickly. In the preseason, MLB Trade Rumors projected that Ozuna crossing the Super Two arbitration threshold was "a near certainty." Had he done that in 2015, his 2016 compensation would change from a league-minimum salary into an extra year of arbitration. As a center fielder with a good defensive reputation who hit 23 home runs in his rookie year, every following arbitration season also would cost the Marlins significantly more than they would without this extra year.
There were reports in the offseason that Loria engaged Ozuna with the purpose of agreeing to a cost-controlled extension to avoid arbitration all together. With Scott Boras as his agent, Ozuna predictably declined to discuss an extension.
In a similarly predictable move, the center fielder was controversially demoted to the Minor Leagues during a down period. Unable to accrue service time, Ozuna failed to pass the Super Two threshold. The entire process wasn't all that different from how the Cubs handled Kris Bryant out of Spring Training this season; it just doesn't typically happen with established Major League veterans, and the Marlins being involved adds an unavoidable layer of suspicion.
The handling of Ozuna, combined with Loria's reputation and trade rumors around the deadline, have led to the idea that the 24-year-old may not be long for Miami. Is there a legitimate concern for interested teams about Ozuna's long term outlook, given his tumultuous start to the season?
Like with any other kind of analysis in baseball, it's possible that he regress, but in this case he seems like a good investment. For as financially motivated as the move may have been, Ozuna certainly performed at a higher level during and after the demotion.
He hit incredibly well during his 33 games in the PCL, and returned with what seems to have been a corrected approach at the plate. His production in the still-small sample did reflected this change (data from FanGraphs).
|2014 – Full Season||6.7%||26.8%||0.186||17.5%||48.6%||14.8%||13.7%||115|
|2015 – First Half||6.5%||23.0%||0.088||19.1%||53.3%||19.6%||12.0%||75|
|2015 – Second Half||5.2%||20.9%||0.191||24.6%||38.9%||14.3%||11.3%||115|
Ozuna returned, hitting for more power and significantly cutting his strikeout rate. In total, his production was exactly on par with his 2014 breakout season (115 wRC+). Additionally, cutting his ground ball rate by 9.7 percent, whiff rate by 2.5 percent, and total strikeouts by 5.9 percent are significantly better than even in that year.
What happened in New Orleans? It appears that Marlins coaches noted the right-handed hitter had begun swinging at pitches on the outer third too often, resulting in weaker contact. Ozuna reappeared in the majors, focusing on swinging at pitches inside.
He was able to access a lot more of his power and developed better peripherals in the process.
Even if Ozuna had entered the arbitration process this offseason, he still would have been a good value for the Marlins. He resolved his poor tendency quickly and returned to perform at his expected level for the remainder of the season. With four seasons of team control remaining while entering his peak years, 29 teams in baseball are very excited if Jeffrey Loria makes indications that he wants to move Marcell Ozuna.
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Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.