Mix it Up: Marcell Ozuna Free Agency Preview

Five potential fits for one of 2020's biggest breakout stars.

Last winter, the hot stove appeared lukewarm at best for two-time All-Star Marcell Ozuna. After two seasons as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Ozuna rejected the team’s qualifying offer and tested the open market. Similar to other free agents in recent years who have been tied to draft pick compensation, interest in Ozuna was tepid. In addition to concerns over losing a draft pick, teams may have been hesitant to invest a multi-year deal in a player coming off two seasons where he seemingly underperformed. Despite making consistent hard contact, Ozuna hit just .241 in 2019. Many also considered Ozuna to be a defensive liability; the former Gold Glove recipient finished 2019 in the fourth percentile for Outs Above Average. With few suitable multi-year offers late into January, Ozuna settled for a one-year $18m “prove it” deal with the Atlanta Braves.

The jovial slugger known as The Big Bear proved it and then some. Ozuna mashed in the middle of the Atlanta lineup, leading the NL in home runs and RBI while registering a 1.067 OPS. His prodigious run production earned him sixth place in the NL MVP race. It also likely earned him a host of suitors in his second attempt at free agency.

Teams worried that Ozuna’s 2020 was a fluke can put any concerns to rest. His underwhelming 2019 was largely a product of circumstances out of his control. In fact, Ozuna was without a doubt the unluckiest hitter across the league in 2019.

Ozuna’s 2019 Expected vs Actual Statistics

 

As a result of his poor batted-ball luck in 2019, Ozuna was likely viewed by some teams as an underperformer. Over the 60-game sprint, however, Ozuna was more fortunate. The Braves DH benefited from a .391 BABIP and finished third in the NL in batting average. His elite production in 2020 was not a product of luck, but of years of subtle improvements to his batted-ball profile that look sustainable moving forward.

Ozuna has been in the top 10% of the league in exit velo each of the last four seasons. Since 2015, he’s increased his barrel% every year. In addition, the slugger has increased his launch angle and reduced his groundball rate each of the last three years to make the most of his hard contact. While an abbreviated 2020 could very well serve to be the peak of his career, the 30-year-old’s incremental improvements at the plate prove he is capable of sustained success.

Which teams make the most sense for Ozuna? Given his disappointing first crack at free agency, it seems likely he’ll jump at the most lucrative offer. To add intrigue to the negotiations, Ozuna changed representation in November. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Ozuna switched to CAA after frustration he had yet to receive any offers.

Without further ado, here are Ozuna’s five most likely landing spots:

 

Atlanta Braves

 

With their title window officially wide open, it makes almost too much sense for Atlanta to pull out all the stops and run it back with their leading RBI man back in tow. The Braves have already shown they’re willing to be aggressive this offseason, bringing in Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to bolster their young rotation. While these acquisitions are impactful, they come with significant injury histories. They’ll also be entering with a young rotation which peripherals suggest is due for some regression. Atlanta’s pennant hopes in 2021 may once again depend on their offense. As a result, Ozuna is likely at the top of Braves fans’ offseason wish lists.

Although the rumored lack of a DH in the NL is not ideal, Atlanta’s decision to non-tender Adam Duvall may have been an effort to free up a roster spot in anticipation of the rule change. Despite Ozuna’s poor range, he’d be replacing a subpar fielder in Duvall. Moreover, with future Gold Glover Cristian Pache manning center field into the future, the Braves can afford to sacrifice defense for a middle-of-the-order stud. There is also potential that the universal DH will be a part of the next CBA. Subsequently, it’s possible Atlanta would only need Ozuna in left field for one season. In short, Ozuna’s sometimes erratic work with the glove should not be a barrier for GM Alex Anthopoulos in bringing back his MVP candidate.

From a payroll perspective, now is the time for Atlanta to make a splash. Freddie Freeman is in the final year of his contract while Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies have already signed team-friendly extensions. With no albatross contracts on the books, the Braves have the flexibility to offer a large multi-year deal, even with uncertain financial conditions. If Atlanta has hopes of unseating the Dodgers, Ozuna’s bat will likely play a key role.

 

Washington Nationals

 

Coming off a World Series triumph, the Nats never found their footing last season. Despite the best efforts of Juan Soto and Trea Turner, the offense sorely missed Anthony Rendon. To compete, they’ll need to replace some of Rendon’s production this offseason. Similarly to Atlanta, the Nationals would be best suited if Ozuna could DH. However, their need for an impact bat could assuage any concerns. Moving Soto to right field for 2021 would not appear to be an issue. In fact, Soto earned time in right at the end of the season, in part, to give Washington options in free agency. The Nats’ front office may have been preparing to make a run at Ozuna (or Michael Brantley) before the regular season even concluded.

It remains unclear if GM Mike Rizzo will be given the green light to spend this winter. As is the case with many organizations, Washington has not articulated their willingness to spend in this unique environment. If Rizzo is given the go-ahead, he’d be wise to invest in a hitter of Ozuna’s caliber. The Nats have long held a philosophy to pay for starting pitching while developing their bats. They’ve paid top dollar to the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, and seemed content to let Bryce Harper and Rendon walk. Ozuna can’t fully replace Harper or Rendon, but he can serve as the run producer to complement OBP machines in Turner and Soto. More importantly to ownership, he won’t require nearly as big a contract as the two former Nats stars who have departed via free agency.

In an increasingly competitive NL East, the Nationals are quickly falling behind. They concluded 2020 with a pedestrian wRC+ of 103, ahead of only the Marlins within their division. If Washington wants another run at a championship with their aging rotation, adding Ozuna would be a crucial first step.

 

Chicago White Sox

 

Unlike the Braves and Nats, the White Sox have the luxury of an assured DH position. The South Siders also appear motivated to add to their young core. In what is shaping up to be a slow offseason, the White Sox have already been active. By acquiring Lance Lynn and signing Adam Eaton as a left-handed platoon bat in right field, the team added a workhorse starter and a veteran with championship experience. In conjunction with signing a closer, adding one more consistent power hitter could put the Sox over the top in the AL.

The White Sox have a tailor-made fit for Ozuna at DH. Edwin Encarnación and James McCann are both free agents and unlikely to return. While McCann was a revelation in the last two seasons, Ozuna would easily outperform their combined production at the plate. Furthermore, bringing in Ozuna to DH would not cost significantly more per year than the ~$17.4M budgeted for McCann and E5 in 2020.

Despite finishing 2020 in the top five for homers, runs, and slugging, there were some soft spots in the Chicago lineup. The team relied on perhaps the 99th percentile outcomes for José Abreu and Tim Anderson. They also endured a disappointing year from Yoan Moncada and a prolonged slump in Luis Robert‘s rookie campaign. Ozuna would add a stable presence in the middle of the Chicago lineup and could serve as an additional mentor for the team’s ascending stars in Robert and Eloy Jiménez.

There is an important caveat to a potential fit with Chicago. The White Sox have 22-year-old slugger Andrew Vaughn currently waiting in the wings. The top hitter in the Sox system is believed to be ready for the big leagues and is slated to split time between 1B and DH. If Chicago wants to get Vaughn a meaningful number of ABs, they’d likely need to get creative with Ozuna. With a potential log jam of DH options into the future, Chicago may be best served to offer Ozuna something along the lines of a two year deal with a high annual value.

 

Boston Red Sox

 

At first glance, the Red Sox may seem like an unlikely fit. Admittedly, it might be a bit of a stretch. Boston was a league-average offense in 2020 and have massive needs on their pitching staff. Their lineup already has a high-paid player entrenched at DH. They’re also only an offseason removed from trading away the face of the franchise, Mookie Betts, in the name of financial flexibility. However, with a large payroll at his disposal, Chaim Bloom may be motivated to accelerate the team’s rebuild. If the team were to pursue an offensive upgrade like Ozuna, it should also come with additional investments to the starting rotation.

The prospects of Ozuna launching fastballs over the Green Monster would be must-see tv. As Pitcher List’s Matt Wallach has pointed out, Ozuna has focused on pulling more fly balls. The focused approach to pull more of his fly balls would be complemented perfectly with Fenway’s unique dimensions. Moreover, Ozuna would be a logical DH replacement for JD Martinez, who has two years remaining on his contract. If Martinez has a bounce-back season, the Red Sox could look to flip him to a contender knowing that Ozuna is on board (Martinez also has a 2021 opt-out). In the meantime, Ozuna would man left field, where the dimensions may even cover up his lack of arm strength.

If the Red Sox want to fast track their path to relevance, this may prove to be the perfect offseason. Many teams will be hesitant to spend. As a result, they may find bargains across the market, including Ozuna. While they were disinterested in offering Betts a massive extension, Ozuna could come at a relative value. Given the adverse market conditions and his primary fit as a DH, it’s possible Ozuna’s market isn’t as robust as one would expect. Without any draft pick compensation attached, Ozuna would also not cost the organization any future depth (unlike George Springer). By adding Ozuna, the Red Sox could improve their current outlook without damaging their future.

 

Toronto Blue Jays

 

Similarly to Boston, the fit in Toronto may feel redundant. Their lineup is ascending with power hitters, a few of which are best suited for DH. Any ability they have to spend may be best invested on the mound. If they acquire an impact bat, it would be best suited in center field. How then, does Marcell Ozuna fit with the Jays?

First, it requires George Springer to sign elsewhere. The Blue Jays reportedly have Springer higher on their list of free agent priorities. Their preference makes sense. Randal Grichuk is a natural corner outfielder that was pressed into center field duty for the last two years. Springer can also fill the role of leadoff hitter in Toronto. Second, the Jays would have to be open to moving Vlad Guerrero Jr. back to third base. If not, it would vanquish a potential breakout candidate in Rowdy Tellez to limited at-bats off the bench.

While Ozuna is likely a fallback option, he could help the Jays offense transition from good to great. With limited options to upgrade their rotation, Toronto will need to slug their way to a second consecutive playoff berth. Ozuna’s presence provides insurance in the event Teoscar Hernández‘s 2020 success proves to just be a hot streak over a small sample. As other teams appear poised to sit on the sidelines during free agency, the Blue Jays have the opportunity to be aggressive. Adding Ozuna, although not their greatest need, would be an instant upgrade to the Jays young core and keep them competitive in the AL East.

 

(Photo by All-Pro Reels Wikimedia Commons/flickr) | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Anthony Tucker

Anthony Tucker is a lifelong Yankees fan in his first year writing for Pitcher List. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and convinces himself each fall that this is the year that ND Football ends their title drought.

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