Marcell Ozuna will be a free agent for the first time in his career this winter, but the slugging corner outfielder doesn’t sound eager to play elsewhere next season. Asked by Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a possible return to the Cardinals in 2020 and beyond, Ozuna candidly replied: “That’s my priority. My agents just have to do their job.”
It’s not the first time that Ozuna has voiced a preference to remain with the Cardinals, but his most recent statements were more emphatic than previous comments on the matter. Hummel also chats with Ozuna about the excitement over his first pennant race before talking with Adam Wainwright about the team’s young arms, so Cards fans will want to check out the column in its entirety.
Ozuna will have age on his side in free agency, as he won’t turn 29 until November. He also may have rediscovered the pop he lost during a 2018 season that was marred by shoulder troubles; Ozuna slugged 37 homers with a .237 isolated power mark (slugging percentage minus batting average) in 2017 but managed to connect on just 23 round-trippers with a .153 ISO in 2018. This year, he’s batted at a .255/.333/.496 clip with 26 home runs and a .241 ISO through 465 plate appearances (but missed time due to fractured fingers). He’s also walking at a career-best 10.4 percent clip and has swiped a career-best 12 bases in just 13 attempts.
The Cardinals (and other interested suitors) will be tasked with determining whether improved health in Ozuna’s shoulder led to that restored pop or whether the reemergence of his power stroke is more closely linked to changes to the composition of the 2019 baseball that have resulted in a league-wide home run boom. Both have probably contributed to some degree, but each team could figures to have a varying view on the extent to which each of those factors has impacted Ozuna’s output. Those opinions and projections will inform the strength of offers he receives on the open market.
Another critical factor for Ozuna will be draft-pick compensation, as it seems probable that the Cardinals will issue him a one-year qualifying offer. This year’s QO will fall around the $18MM mark, but Ozuna and his reps at MDR Sports Management will likely feel that a more substantial guarantee awaits in free agency (even if it’s not quite at such a hefty annual value). Ozuna’s $12.25MM salary for the 2019 season has pushed his career earnings north of $26MM, giving him plenty of financial security if and when he declines the QO and explores the open market. Ozuna checked in at No. 8 on the July update to MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings.
Of course, it takes two sides to make a deal, and looking at the situation from the Cardinals’ vantage point, it’s less clear that an Ozuna reunion will be a priority. Dexter Fowler is still owed $33MM through 2021 (including the annualized payouts of his deferred signing bonus), and his $82.5MM contract included full no-trade protection. As such, he’s unlikely to be moved and can be expected to hold down one of the outfield spots in 2020 with a fair degree of regularity. Meanwhile, 24-year-old slugger Tyler O’Neill seems ready for a legitimate audition in left field, even if his strikeout issues remain a concern. St. Louis also has one of the game’s premier defenders in center (Harrison Bader), one of the game’s best outfield prospects (Dylan Carlson) and a slew of utility options/part-time outfield options.
Re-signing Ozuna could allow president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch the opportunity to trade from that impressive crop of outfield talent, but there’s an easy argument that the Cards are better off taking the draft pick and allocating those financial resources elsewhere. Both Wainwright and Michael Wacha will be free agents at season’s end — Wacha tells Hummel he’d also like to return — and the bullpen has been an ongoing need in St. Louis despite considerable front-office efforts to improve it. The Cardinals already have $139MM committed to the 2020 season, not including modest first-time arbitration raises for righties John Gant and John Brebbia. This year’s payroll sits at roughly $165MM, so it’d certainly be defensible to see them forgo a weighty annual salary for Ozuna and spend their remaining dollars to bolster the pitching staff.