A hallmark of the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals, a pretty good team which nevertheless did not make the playoffs, were pretty good but not amazing outfielders. With the exception of the genuinely excellent Tommy Pham, most of the Cardinals’ outfield playing time was accumulated by Dexter Fowler (good hitter, bad fielder, basically average on balance), Randal Grichuk (average all around), and Stephen Piscotty (a little below-average, but 2016 was Piscotty at his Average Best). The Cardinals had depth but they didn’t have superstars. If the Cardinals wanted to go from an 83-win team to a playoff team, they needed to make improvements. Marcell Ozuna was that improvement.
In 2017, despite playing in the shadow of his Miami Marlins teammate (and former Cardinals trade target) Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna had the best offensive season of his career. In 679 plate appearances, Ozuna hit 37 home runs, had a .924 OPS, and managed a wRC+ of 142. Only twelve qualified hitters were more productive at the plate than Marcell Ozuna. Oh, and he also won a Gold Glove.
So when the Cardinals acquired Ozuna in December, it appeared the Cardinals had finally acquired their big bat. This wasn’t Jedd Gyorko nor Dexter Fowler–this was a player with MVP-caliber potential at the plate. Was Ozuna going to repeat his 2017 performance? Probably not, but even with a conventional level of regression, the Cardinals did not appear to be trading indispensible assets for Ozuna–Sandy Alcantara was a nice prospect, though not quite of the caliber of Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, nor Jack Flaherty; Magneuris Sierra was exciting and was such a fast runner that his defensive upside was seemingly unlimited; Zac Gallen and The Guy I Just Had To Look Up To Remember His Name (note: Daniel Castano) were depth prospects, but they were easy departures to stomach when the return was Marcell Freaking Ozuna.
Nearly one-third of the way into his first season in St. Louis, Marcell Ozuna has, by any measure, been a disappointment. Yes, regression was expected, especially considering Ozuna’s age-26 season was such a quantum leap forward from his pedestrian 106 wRC+ the year before, in 2016. But in 190 plate appearances, Ozuna has three home runs, and he has walked in a mere 5.8% of plate appearances while striking out in 21.6% of plate appearances, not too far off of his career norms. His batting average on balls in play, .311, is slightly below his career marks but not radically so. Ozuna has made three errors in left field (a poor stat for evaluating fielders, but not the worst one when it comes to capturing public frustration), and between this and his propensity for swinging wildly outside the strike zone (only Yadier Molina among Cardinals starters swings at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone), Marcell Ozuna’s first of two (likely) seasons in St. Louis has gotten off to a poor start, statistically and aesthetically.
At a .277 wOBA somewhat deep into the season, Ozuna has already buried himself into a bit of a hole–ZiPS projections do not believe that he is suddenly a bad hitter, but weighing these results, the system now projects Ozuna for just a .317 wOBA, which would rank just seventh on the Cardinals. By Wins Above Replacement, Ozuna (who is currently below Replacement Level) is expected to “rebound” to 1.5 WAR. This isn’t dreadful, and it’s certainly better than what he’s been this season, but it would make Marcell Ozuna essentially what the Cardinals had a surplus of last season–average-ish outfielders. And with Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill showing signs of brilliance semi-unexpectedly at the Major League level in 2018, the Ozuna acquisition is looking slightly redundant so far.
At .342, Ozuna’s xwOBA is noticeably better than his actual wOBA, which may suggest Ozuna has been unluckier than his respectable BABIP implies. Unlike fellow struggling offensive outfielder Dexter Fowler, who stands at .302, Ozuna has shown some signs of life with hard-hit balls. Translated to an actual wOBA of .342, Ozuna would rank tied for 77th among baseball’s 164 qualified hitters. The good news? Ozuna is tied with defending American League MVP Jose Altuve. The bad news? Altuve has been something of a disappointment at the plate (this mostly doesn’t matter, as the Houston Astros don’t allow runs anymore), and being the 77th best hitter in baseball is not what the Cardinals expected of Ozuna when they traded for him.
But a huge part of any trade evaluation, obviously, is what was given up. Sandy Alcantara, the centerpiece of the trade, has not been able to crack the Marlins’ MLB rotation (let me repeat that: he hasn’t been able to crack the Marlins’ rotation), and in AAA, Alcantara has pedestrian ERA/FIP/xFIP marks of 3.71/4.28/4.85, and despite being much ballyhooed for his velocity, this hasn’t translated much to strikeouts, as he has walked fewer than seven batters per nine with the New Orleans Baby Cakes.
Magneuris Sierra, too, has been stuck in AAA, and while Alcantara has been merely okay, Sierra has been outright bad. In 169 plate appearances, Sierra has just five walks, zero home runs, four extra-base hits, and a wRC+ of 30. He has six stolen bases, a frankly impressive total given how rarely Sierra has gotten on base this season. Daniel Castano has pitched in high-A, and through eight starts, his ERA is 5.11. Only Zac Gallen has surpassed expectations with the Marlins organization, and even so, that still translates to a 4.89 xFIP–his ERA of 2.94 and FIP of 3.58 in AAA are much better, yes, but a 2.9% home run to fly ball rate suggests an unusual dose of luck.
Context matters here. And while the underwhelming start to Marcell Ozuna’s 2018 may temper some of the excitement of the purported swindle that was the Cardinals’ acquisition of him, the Cardinals simply didn’t give up all that much. Would the Cardinals like Sandy Alcantara and company back? Sure. But the losses were not ultimately detrimental to the team’s long-term plans, and especially given the emergence of young starters and young outfielders so far in 2018, I would still give Marcell Ozuna’s odds of becoming a solidly above-average hitter again higher than the odds of the Cardinals badly regretting this trade.