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BenFred: Some myth-busting needed in the Ozuna debate

BenFred: Some myth-busting needed in the Ozuna debate

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Atlanta Braves vs St. Louis Cardinals, Game 4 NLDS in St. Louis

St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna tosses his bat to the side after hitting his second home run of the game in the fourth inning during Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. Photo by David Carson,

Marcell Ozuna hasn’t been this hot of a topic since his midsummer snooze.

The debate about whether the Cardinals should retain their free-agent left fielder and cleanup hitter has become, perhaps by default, the most tantalizing topic in a tepid offseason.

Some myth-busting is needed.

Myth: The Cardinals can’t afford to keep Ozuna.

Reality: Come on. The Cardinals can afford any free agent they are determined to sign. Period.

Myth: The Cardinals can’t afford to lose Ozuna.

Reality: Ozuna’s two seasons with the Cardinals produced an adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+) of 107. That’s seven points above the big-league average. Eleven righthanded hitters who totaled more than 1,000 plate appearances since 2018 and spent more than half their playing time in the outfield produced a better OPS+ than Ozuna. Former Cardinal Tommy Pham (123 OPS+) checked in ahead of him. Former Cardinal Randal Gricuk (104) was hot on his heels.

Ozuna’s defense isn’t as bad as his face-planting meme makes it seem, but the state of his right arm has been problematic since he was obtained from Miami. The Cardinals saw few signs of the 2017 Gold Glove winner who somehow still ranks fourth in defensive runs saved (plus-21) among left fielders since 2017.

Ozuna is well-liked in the clubhouse. Manager Mike Shildt has stumped for his return. Ozuna has campaigned for a reunion at his preferred price point.

There were some rough patches worth mentioning, though. Ozuna at times exasperated the organization with the handling of his problematic shoulder, his tendency to arrive at spring training in suboptimal shape, and that time in 2018 he overslept for a day game. Whoops.

Myth: The Cardinals wouldn’t miss Ozuna.

Reality: A 2019 Cardinals offense that was historically overwhelmed in the NLCS finished that regular season ranked in or very near the NL’s bottom third in every meaningful offensive statistic, from runs per game (4.72, 10th), to on-base plus slugging percentage (.737, 11th). Ozuna accounted for 13.8 percent of that 2019 team’s home runs, and 12.5 percent of its RBIs. That’s something.

Over the past two seasons, Ozuna’s 52 home runs and 177 RBIs are among the top 50 in baseball, and trail only Paul Goldschmidt among current Cardinals. Spackling over Ozuna’s departure without a corresponding move of significance significantly could weaken an already shaky lineup. There’s a reason Shildt wants Ozuna back. It’s not his neon green sleeve.

Myth: The Cardinals have better players waiting to take Ozuna’s place.

Reality: The Cardinals could have better players waiting to take Ozuna’s place. We don’t know they do. They don’t, either.

Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, Justin Williams and Dylan Carlson could combine to fill the Ozuna hole, or perhaps even improve upon it. The argument is heavy on optimism. Especially for 2020.

O’Neill’s 271 career at-bats in the majors make him the most experienced of that bunch, but the injury-prone outfielder’s promising 2018 slugging percentage of .500 dropped to .411 last season.

No other member in the up-and-comers club has more than 38 major-league at-bats. Thomas is returning from a wrist fracture. Arozarena appeared in 19 games in ‘19. Williams and Carlson, the team’s top prospect, are awaiting their St. Louis debuts.

If the wave of young talent is the answer for left field in 2020, why didn’t it put more pressure on center fielder Harrison Bader and right fielder Dexter Fowler in 2019?

Myth: Ozuna’s market is weak.

Reality: There’s no real proof of this. The White Sox were the only team linked to Ozuna that has found its outfield answer elsewhere. The Rangers and Reds reportedly remain interested. The Cardinals still are engaged. Ozuna’s main free-agent competitor, Nicholas Castellanos, is unsigned. So much remains up in the air.

Ozuna’s age, 29, is not working against him.

His counting-stat clout improves if you include his final season in Miami. Of the 17 outfielders who have played more than 1,000 innings in each of the last three seasons, Ozuna leads the pack in RBIs (301) and ranks third in home runs (89).

His career-worst .259 batting average on balls in play suggests his 2019 statistics lacked luck. Multiple projections think Ozuna will surpass a .500 slugging percentage, 30 homers and 100 RBIs in 2020.

Ozuna’s camp has stressed certain advanced statistics from 2019 to make the case he could be coming off his best year in terms of batting approach.

Ozuna’s average exit velocity (91.8 mph) was 17th-best in baseball last season. His percentage of barreled baseballs per plate appearance (8.6 percent) was 28th-best, and he performed well against high-velocity arms and pitchers who attacked him up in the zone, an increasing approach during the launch-angle craze. Ozuna’s expected weighted on-base average (.379) was 24th-best in the game, seven points higher than his breakout 2017 season.

Expected weighted on-base average is a Statcast darling data point that uses exit velocity and launch angle to determine the likelihood of a hit based on quality of contact instead of the actual result.

Dismiss it if you like. Teams value that stuff these days. They also value scouting reports that suggest there’s no reason to test Ozuna up when you can probably get him to chase a pitch low and away.

And that is perhaps what makes this conversation so complicated.

After Ozuna’s two seasons in St. Louis, it’s easy to conclude his case for a hefty contract looks better on paper than it does in real life.

The same could be said about the argument his departing production will be easy to replace from within.

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