With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.
The Cubs plucked an outfielder away from the rival Cardinals in free agency four years ago in Jason Heyward. Could they do so again with left fielder Marcell Ozuna?
Ozuna had a monster 2017 season, leading the Cardinals to acquire him from the Marlins for a large prospect haul. Although he’s put up some solid numbers with St. Louis, Ozuna has yet to match his offensive level from his final Marlins season.
2017: .312/.376/.548, 37 HR, 124 RBIs
2018: .280/.325/.433, 23 HR, 88 RBIs
2019: .241/.328/.472, 29 HR, 89 RBIs
Ozuna is an intriguing free agent because there’s plenty of room for him to improve offensively compared to what he did with the Cardinals. He played through a nagging right shoulder injury in 2018, which affected his throwing arm and ability to hit inside pitches. He underwent surgery in October 2018 but said early last season his arm strength was only at 55 percent.
Ozuna also fractured his right middle finger diving into first base on a pickoff attempt in August. He missed a month but wasn’t the same hitter following his return.
-2019 before injury (326 plate appearances, 293 at-bats): .259/.331/.515, 20 HR, 62 RBIs, 31 BB/68 K
-2019 after injury (223 plate appearances, 192 at-bats): .214/.323/.406, 9 HR, 27 RBIs, 31 BB/46 K
The sample size post-injury is smaller, but Ozuna was getting on base less frequently because he was getting less hits. Perhaps he wasn't 100 percent upon his return, but he also pulled the ball more frequently the last two seasons than he did in 2017. Opponents often placed three defenders on left side of the infield against him as a result, which affected how Ozuna fared when hitting groundballs and flyballs — according to a breakdown from MLB.com’s Mike Petriello.
Ozuna in 2019 on groundballs:
Expected average: .270
Actual average: .160
Ozuna in 2019 on flyballs:
Expected average: .213
Actual average: .074
Ozuna will need to make adjustments on his swing this offseason to combat shifting. A return to full health will also help him offensively in 2020. Expecting him to hit those 2017 figures each season might be unfair, but there’s still plenty of room for his offense to take a step forward from where it’s been with the Cardinals.
For the Cubs, Ozuna would represent a possible replacement in the outfield, should Nicholas Castellanos be out of their price range on the open market. The Cubs’ 2020 payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s $208 million luxury tax threshold without any offseason additions, so the same may prove to be true about Ozuna.
There's also the fact the Cardinals tended Ozuna a qualifying offer in November, meaning if the Cubs sign him, they'd surrender a compensatory draft pick to St. Louis. Ozuna and the Cardinals also reportedly planned to meet in November to see if they could find common ground on a multi-year contract, though he remains a free agent as the calendar flips to December.
Furthermore, Ozuna exclusively played left field with the Cardinals and the Cubs have Kyle Schwarber manning that position already. However, Ozuna has experience playing right and was a plus defender in 2013 (4 Defensive Runs Saved, 327 2/3 innings) and 2016 (6 DRS, 70 2/3 innings). And as we saw in 2019 with Castellanos, Heyward is capable of playing center field, allowing the Cubs to add another bat in the lineup to play right.
However, Heyward is a better right fielder than center fielder. The Cubs moved him to center because their offense needed a boost last season, so they were willing to sacrifice a little defensively down the stretch and for a possible postseason run for the sake of offense. They may not be willing to do so across a full season, and Ozuna's success in right field simply may not translate across 162 games.
Nonetheless, Ozuna would look nice in the Cubs lineup, especially if he makes adjustments this winter to combat shifting and comes back fully healthy in 2020. Cubs fans may not want to see the former Cardinal on the North Side, but Ozuna would be a solid addition.