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Which Marcell Ozuna will a future team acquire?

While considered a slight disappointment in St. Louis, his peripherals show an optimistic projection for 2020.

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“Was the Marcell Ozuna trade a bad deal?” is a really interesting question, and I think the answer to that is the same as whether you think the Christian Yelich deal was a poor one, too. Sure, of course you would argue that it wasn’t, on account of the two top-two MVP finishes.

Yet when you look at both of their careers to that point, there are quite a few alternate realities where it was Ozuna who rocketed up to the top and Yelich remained the solid outfielder. Ozuna had 14.4 career WAR to Yelich’s 18.9 over their first five seasons in a nearly identical amount of games, and Ozuna had a 115 OPS+ in Miami to Yelich’s 121.

Which is why in many ways, it’s easy for a Cardinals fan to declare their trade for Ozuna before the 2018 season a failure, for the reason that there was an similar-but-better option on the other side of the Miami outfield. Many of the players the Cards gave up, too, have already had a bout of success on an otherwise-dreary Marlins team: Sandy Alcantara put up 197 13 innings of 109 ERA+ ball; Zac Gallen has a 156 ERA+ in short relief as a starter, and was flipped to Arizona for Jazz Chisholm.

Ozuna, on the other hand, was considered a slight disappointment, despite the fact the Cardinals shocked many by both winning the NL Central over the favored Cubs and Brewers, and made it all the way to the NLCS. One unpredictability was that Ozuna had issues with his right shoulder, which sapped a good portion of his power, so his home run output dropped by 14 dingers despite the fact he still hit .280.

His defense also showed a steeper decline than expected; while ranging between -1 and 3 Outs Above Averagefrom 2016 to 2018, 2019 saw a drop to -8, mostly because of his incredibly poor range in all directions. Even though he had an expected catch percentage of 86%, in actuality it was only 83%.

There’s the silver lining, though. Ozuna saw some of his power rebound in 2019 after a year removed from his shoulder issues, and his hard hit rate recovered, as well. His hard hit rate was in the 93rd percentile, and he was able to raise his launch angle by about three degrees at the same time. His BABIP may have fallen to an oddly-low .259, but it was very possibly a fluke; his xwOBA of .382 would have pegged him as his best offensive season since 2017. His xSLG also matched his actual 2017 slugging percentage.

And it wasn’t just raw performance; there was also a concerted effort to be more disciplined at the plate:

Pitchers are pretty smart, actually, and they were probably aware of Ozuna’s peripheral improvements, so he got fewer pitches in the zone. Ozuna obliged, and merely took more pitches out of the zone. The result was his highest career walk rate of 11.3%.

Whether you want to acquire Ozuna to anchor a corner outfield spot is a pretty complicated question, but the price actually shouldn’t be too prohibitive. FanGraphs predicts he will sign for four years and $64 million, which is an incredibly fair deal for a player set to put up a median 3.1 fWAR performance next year; that alone should make up over a third of the value of the deal.

There’s a chance for a bargain, even, if these offensive leaps are to be believed. Some of the projections believe partially so, as he is projected to be a 119 wRC+ hitter in 2020. Yet if he’s really the hitter behind the hard hit balls, then it’s possibly ten points higher, which is a different story altogether.

If it’s really in the opposite direction, and injuries continue to catch up to him and he finds more bad luck, then you have a league-average hitter with very poor defense in the corner, something only, maybe, an American League team can handle.

Regardless, he will have his suitors, both from his original Cardinals to the Reds, Rangers, or even White Sox, who just inked their biggest deal (lol) in franchise history. It’s unclear which Ozuna hitter that team will receive in 2020, but I would not be shocked if people are surprised by it.