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As Ozuna declines qualifying offer, Cardinals focus on improving their outfield

As Ozuna declines qualifying offer, Cardinals focus on improving their outfield


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When it comes to the Cardinals’ description of an early-offseason approach that is not as singularly focused as previous winters — straight talk, no chaser — the annual General Manager Meetings offered a chance to do some comparative shopping because of the one thing agents and teams all shared for a few days.

It’s the same thing that Cardinals are wondering when they consider their roster and consider ways to upgrade around the incumbents they have.

Location. Location. Location.

“You meet with people because really there’s no easier place to do it at this point,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “We meet with agents and we talk about who they have, who are the free agents, and whatever they’re trying to accomplish. And we let them know who might be a fit. A lot of our answers are, ‘We could imagine him being a fit if we also do X, Y, Z. He could be a fit down the road.’ We’re gathering information, not pursuing.”

In what was an expected and mostly formal move Thursday, the Cardinals gained their first obvious opening in the lineup and on the roster when cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna declined a one-year, $17.8-million qualifying offer. Ozuna was one of seven players who received qualifying offers and declined them.

As a result, the Cardinals will receive compensation if another team signs Ozuna. The former All-Star is arguably the best available free agent outfielder — a sign of a market that has many teams exploring trades for outfielders. Count the Cardinals in that group as they have outfielders they’re willing to discuss in trades and a curiosity about what established outfielder they could acquire via trade. That list is evolving.

Pitcher Jake Odorizzi, of Breese, Ill., accepted the QO from Minnesota, and first baseman Jose Abreu returned to the White Sox on the QO. Lefty Will Smith, who had received a qualifying offer from San Francisco, signed a three-year, $39-million deal with Atlanta, the Braves announced, for the first significant free-agent signing of the offseason.

In addition to Ozuna, the players to decline a QO were Anthony Rendon (Washington), Gerrit Cole (Houston), Zack Wheeler (Mets), Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco), Josh Donaldson (Atlanta), and World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg (Washington).

The interest in Ozuna gained some clarity for his agent Melvin Roman this week as he met with teams. At least six teams have expressed initial interest in Ozuna and according to multiple sources that group includes the Reds and the White Sox. Atlanta and Texas also have some interest. The Cardinals and Ozuna’s agent both say they remain in contact. Ozuna has expressed an interest in remaining with the Cardinals. The Cardinals are reluctant to commit the amount of years Ozuna seeks.

Their reason reveals a corner piece of their offseason puzzle.

“We like a lot of our young outfielders, and we want to give them an opportunity,” Girsch said. “At some point in order to give young players opportunities there might not be clarity (in the lineup). In a perfect world, where we would have an All-Star at every position and total clarity, yeah. But, are we comfortable going in with the guys that we have and letting them battle it out in spring training and throughout the season? Yeah. We’re excited about the group and feel like there’s a lot of potential there.”

At this point, the Cardinals are banking on a bounce-back from several players to revive a flagging offense that saw some of its least-productive positions in the outfield.

Even with Ozuna’s .800 on-base-plus-slugging in left field, the Cardinals’ production from that position, was nearly league average, .794 OPS to .796. The production in center and right fielder was significantly below league average — .717 to .739 and .753 to .815, respectively. Any of the three spots would be ripe for an upgrade to change the look and goose the lineup. Right fielder Dexter Fowler is two years removed from a .851 OPS in his first season with the Cardinals. This season, that .851 OPS would have led all Cardinals with at least 50 plate appearances, edging rookie Tommy Edman’s team-high .850 OPS. Fowler and slick-fielder Harrison Bader, who had a .680 OPS, are viewed by the team as returning starters at two outfield positions. That leaves a phalanx of prospects for the opening left by Ozuna.

The Cardinals count Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena and Justin Williams all as candidates for the opening, and top prospect Dylan Carlson will get a chance to force his way into the competition this spring. The Cardinals expect Carlson, a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield spots, to debut in 2020 — and emerge as an everyday talent.

“In essence,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations said this week during the meetings at the Omni Resort at Montelucia, “we have to figure out what we exactly have.”

From many, the Cardinals hope at least one outfielder will arrive carrying the bat they seek. Thomas is a year removed from leading the Cardinals’ minor-league affiliates in homers, and before an injury he was 12-for-38 with four homers for the Cardinals. They expected him to get a larger role in September before fracturing his hand. He has a .815 OPS in 107 Class AAA games for the Cardinals.

Arozarena hit .358 with a .593 slugging percentage in his first 64 games at Class AAA. Garcia hit 32 homers for Triple-A Memphis and had a .818 OPS. Limited by injuries in 2019, O’Neill has a .894 OPS in the past three seasons at Class AAA. Justin Williams, the lone lefthanded hitter in the group, hit .296 with a .484 slugging percentage and a .856 OPS for Memphis when he returned from a hand injury.

Any of them could be prelude to Carlson, the 21-year-old and Texas League MVP who reached Class AAA, came just shy of a 20-20 season, and had a .914 OPS overall.

The Cardinals want to see what members of that group can do at the major-league level, though they would consider moving members of that group for a player already at the major-league level.

During the GM Meetings this past week, the Cardinals’ stable of outfielders drew interest from other teams. The New York Mets are seeking a center fielder, and at the trade deadline they showed interest in Bader and other Cardinals’ outfielders. The thin free agent market at the position — headlined by Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos, who is not handcuffed to compensation — has a handful of teams intrigued by what return they could get on an outfielder. Boston is reportedly trying to shed salary, and will entertain conversation about their outfielders, though it has been hard to see how a team would pay the asking price for former MVP Mookie Betts. Jackie Bradley Jr. is the more likely move, with Andrew Benintendi certain to draw some conversation.

Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger and Arizona’s David Peralta also fit the profile of outfielders who could be moved this winter. That’s the kind of conversation that gains clarity in the coming weeks.

An agent who met with the Cardinals this past week said it was pretty clear the Cardinals weren’t “chasing one particular thing.” That’s a statement the front office agrees with. Unlike past winters when the Cardinals tried to jump the market to get their target — Paul Goldschmidt in 2018, Marcell Ozuna in 2017, Brett Cecil in 2016, and Jason Heyward in 2014 — there’s a poker sense around the Cardinals. They like their hand. They know it could be better. They’ll stick around to see a few cards played, watch the pot develop, and then make a call.

Before leaving the resort Thursday around noon, Mozeliak sat in a sunny courtyard and suggested that the Cardinals came out of the meetings “after an informative three days, but with some inertia, not looking to set things up immediately.”

They know what they seek, and a little more on where to find it.

Production. Production. Production.

“I would say that it’s a developing market,” Mozeliak said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of depth (in the outfield), and that gives us a lot of ways for us to think about things because of what we start with. As far as trade strategy, or how we’re thinking about our trade strategy, we have to remain very open-minded at this point.”

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