Cubs

Cubs free agent focus: Marcell Ozuna

Cubs free agent focus: Marcell Ozuna

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.

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Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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