Cardinals Trade for New Best Position Player

You could say that, in recent years, the Cardinals and Marlins have dealt with opposite strengths and weaknesses. Even leaving ownership issues aside, the Cardinals have fielded teams full of pretty good players, with precious few great ones. The Marlins, meanwhile, have had their great players, but they couldn’t surround them with any depth. With the Marlins presently tearing down, it made all the sense in the world for the Cardinals to try to get their ear. And although the Cardinals ultimately couldn’t get Giancarlo Stanton to waive his no-trade clause, Wednesday they’ve settled for a powerful alternative. The newest outfielder in St. Louis is none other than Marcell Ozuna.

This is the kind of trade the Cardinals were lined up to make. This is a form of talent consolidation, and the team might not be finished. The Cubs are just within reach, and the Cardinals aren’t happy missing the playoffs two years in a row. They made it a mission of theirs to acquire some form of impact bat. From the Marlins’ side, this was inevitable, unavoidable. This is how a rebuild proceeds, and the years ahead will be ugly. With luck, the Marlins will have a promising 2021. With luck, the Cardinals will have a promising 2018.

Even though news of the trade has been out for hours, it remains unclear exactly how the Cardinals filled out the package. What we do know is that the Marlins are getting Sandy Alcantara, a 22-year-old righty with an upper-90s fastball. He’s a guy the Marlins wanted in exchange for Stanton, so he should be assumed to be the centerpiece. There is, probably, another prospect, likely a pitcher, and some manner of position player with big-league experience. Alcantara will be the focus in the seasons ahead.

Once the Marlins started taking themselves apart, it was evident that Ozuna would be on the block. There’s little sense in a partial rebuild, and Ozuna has just two more years of team control. Sure, the Marlins also wanted to lose the salary, but this is an easy one to understand from a normal baseball perspective. Ozuna is represented by Scott Boras, and there was next to no chance he was ever going to re-sign. The Marlins, in the short-term, are going to be terrible, meaning Ozuna’s skills would be wasted. Although he’s popular in Miami, he just doesn’t belong on a team in the basement. Any club in the Marlins’ situation would be looking to trade shorter-term talent for longer-term help.

If Alcantara does indeed turn out to be the key guy, his stock has fallen. Before this past season, Eric Longenhagen ranked him third in the Cardinals’ system, and now he ranks fifth. Alcantara’s strikeouts went backwards, and he’s still showing inconsistent control of his big-time fastball. Because Alcantara has yet to make more of his peak velocity, there are real concerns he ends up in the bullpen. All of his major-league appearances with the Cardinals were made as a reliever. The Marlins, presumably, will let him keep starting. He instantly becomes a jewel in their own system, as the organization hopes he learns where his fastball is going.

Alcantara isn’t an easy talent for the Cardinals to lose. All teams love their good prospects. Yet Alcantara wasn’t likely to be a major factor in 2018, and Ozuna’s coming off a season in which he was worth 4.8 WAR. The Cardinals might tell you they’re enamored of Ozuna’s intimidation factor. I don’t know to what extent that makes a difference; the Cardinals could already hit. But Ozuna will provide something that was missing, a dynamism for a team with otherwise lower-ceiling regulars.

According to Baseball Savant, this past season, Ozuna was something of an over-achiever. If you compare his actual wOBA to the wOBA you’d expect based on his batted balls, Ozuna might’ve gotten a handful of breaks. He might’ve just had the best season he’ll have. But then, turn to the Steamer projections. Looking at Steamer600 for the upcoming season, the previous Cardinals position player with the best projection was Tommy Pham, at 2.9 WAR. Ozuna is up there at 3.5, between Xander Bogaerts and Gary Sanchez. And, as a matter of fact, if you look at the pitcher projections, Carlos Martinez ranks first among Cardinals, at 3.4. Ozuna looks like the Cardinals’ best position player. You could argue he looks like their best player, period. The Cardinals needed to add high-end talent, and Ozuna fits the bill.

Ozuna isn’t exactly one-dimensional. He’s not an asset on the bases, but he is fast. He’s not an above-average fly-catcher, but he has one of baseball’s best arms. He doesn’t draw walks like Joey Votto, but he has progressively pushed opposing pitchers out of the zone.

Ozuna’s aggressive without being a hacker. But it’s the power that makes him look like a star, power that conquered Marlins Park. Ozuna just knocked a career-high 37 homers, and his exit velocity on balls in the air just put him around Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger. And while Ozuna has been strong from the start, there’s evidence of real improvement — in 2016, his expected wOBA on batted balls was .389, and in 2017 it was .423. That ranked Ozuna in the 90th percentile among changes in the metric, so the Cardinals don’t need to see that recent batting line as a complete and utter fluke. Ozuna still swings and misses a quarter of the time, but it looks like the contact quality itself might have taken a step forward.

If Ozuna were to repeat what he did, the Cardinals would be ecstatic. That would help them close the gap on the Cubs even further, and it would further distance the Cardinals from the rest of the wild-card competition. Probably, they don’t see Ozuna having the exact same season again, but even with a statistical step backward, Ozuna slots in at the top of the roster. He’s a good young player now, and he’ll stick around an extra season. The Cardinals have needed some players like this. The Marlins will miss Ozuna, just as they’ll miss Stanton and Dee Gordon, yet this is how it was always going to go. Ozuna might be thankful to them for giving him a shot at the playoffs.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Enlightening Roundmember
6 years ago

It is what is is, but does anyone else kinda feel bad for Yelich now? Yuck.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago

Some reporting now has the Marlins offering to trade him if he asks for it. But I guess that doesn’t necessarily make up for the contract he’s stuck with anyhow.

6 years ago

They probably want to package him with a bad contract like Prado or Chen

6 years ago

Not really. Signing that early deal was a calculated risk under an owner where that risk was readily apparent. The pitfalls are tough but that’s how it goes sometimes. His only choice now is to keep working and continue to get better. That’s what’ll get teams to make Miami that perfect offer and meanwhile build up his resume for his first FA contract.