Marcell Ozuna signed a one-year, $18MM deal with the Braves in January, after an offseason that saw the outfielder connected to multiple teams, including a potential reunion with the Cardinals. Though he turned down the Cards’ one-year, $17.8MM qualifying offer, “if I knew before it was going to happen like this, I would have taken it,” Ozuna told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But I wanted to make sure I had a chance (at a contract) for my career.”
As it happened, such an acceptable long-term offer didn’t materialize over the early weeks of the offseason, leading Ozuna and his representatives to pivot to the idea of a one-year deal and a quick return to free agency next winter without the burden of the draft pick compensation attached to his services for rejecting the QO. (Players cannot be issued more than one qualifying offer in their career.) Before taking Atlanta’s one-year deal, Ozuna turned several multi-year offers that were reportedly on the table, including a three-year/$50MM offer from the Reds.
There’s some obvious risk in Ozuna’s decision, as injury or a down year would erase his chances at landing another major long-term contract, and he’ll be re-entering the market heading into his age-30 season. But, the outfielder is choosing to bet on himself to deliver a better platform year than in 2019, when he hit a solid but unspectacular .241/.328/.472 with 29 homers over 549 PA for the Cardinals, and missed over a month recovering from a fractured finger.
Ozuna made no secret of his desire to return to St. Louis, and after extensions talks proved fruitless last season, he and his agency (MDR Sports Management) remained in contact with the Cardinals “every time something moved” in his market, Ozuna said.
“If they offer a good offer, I would get it. But they didn’t do it….I thought the Cardinals were going to offer something (early), but they didn’t do that after I rejected the qualifying offer,” Ozuna told Goold. “So, I got patient. And I waited. And I talked to my agent a lot of the time. We were waiting — and then Atlanta was the team that gave me the opportunity for the one year and a good deal. I had to do that.”
There don’t appear to be any hard feelings between Ozuna and the Cardinals, as he is “not disappointed” with how the winter played out. “I feel like they did not give me the opportunity, so I had to walk away. It’s business,” Ozuna said.
It ended up being a pretty quiet offseason for the Cardinals overall, who re-signed Adam Wainwright and Matt Wieters, and signed Kwang-Hyun Kim and Brad Miller but otherwise didn’t pull the trigger on any major moves, despite constant rumors. The club’s one notable trade was a multi-player deal with the Rays that saw the Cardinals actually subtract from their Major League roster, moving Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay. At the time of that trade, there was some thought that St. Louis could be making room in its outfield to potentially accommodate Ozuna, but instead, the Cards were simply subtracting from an outfield picture that is still pretty crowded as we approach Opening Day.
It can certainly be argued that Ozuna represents a more proven MLB asset than any of Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Dylan Carlson, and Ozuna also seems like a better option at this point than veteran Dexter Fowler, who is entering his age-34 season and is coming three inconsistent years for the Cards. However, with so many outfielders in the mix, the Cardinals were seemingly more comfortable with counting on some members of this group to emerge than they were in offering Ozuna even a one-year deal.
It’s interesting to speculate on how the shape of the offseason (for the Braves, Cardinals, and the free agent market as a whole) would have been altered had Ozuna indeed taken the Cards’ qualifying offer. There was some thought last fall that he could be a candidate to take the $17.8MM deal, as two other notable would-be free agents — Jose Abreu (White Sox) and Jake Odorizzi (Twins) did with their respective teams. However, given that the Cardinals’ interest in retaining Ozuna seemed lukewarm at best, it could be that St. Louis might not have issued the QO whatsoever if they thought there was a truly serious chance that Ozuna would accept.