At some point today, it will probably be announced that the Cardinals have acquired Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins, likely for some combination including Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara. Ozuna isn’t quite Giancarlo Stanton, but St. Louis wants another good outfielder, and they have the pitching the Marlins are looking for.
But yesterday, it came out that the Orioles are willing to listen to offers for Manny Machado. They also are looking for arms, and reportedly want a pair of MLB-ready pitchers in exchange for their franchise player. While the Cardinals infield is more crowded than their outfield, Machado would still represent a substantial upgrade for them at either SS or 3B, and it’s fair to assume they kicked around the pros and cons of pursuing him as their big bat acquisition.
Of course, the primary downside to giving up two promising arms to acquire Machado is that he’s in the final year of his contract, so the Orioles are asking for a significant return for a rental who isn’t likely to give up his chance to hit the open market next winter. Ozuna has another trip through arbitration after this year, so if they trade for him, they’ll get his value for at least the next two years.
The primary upside of trading for Machado is that he’s better than Ozuna, so if the team is mostly concerned with maximizing their chances of catching the Cubs in 2018, they’d get a more substantial upgrade by acquiring Machado. And with Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler all likely in decline going forward, one could reasonably argue that the Cardinals might want to take advantage of these guys while they’re still productive.
Beyond just the Cardinals specific situation, though, other teams probably have had to make similar calls, and there are some specific differences with Machado and Ozuna that could alter how one values them, specifically depending on how much emphasis one puts on the most recent year of data. If you think Ozuna’s 2017 season was a legitimate breakout, maybe the performance gap isn’t that large, and then you clearly prefer the extra year of control. If you put more stock on career numbers, then Ozuna is just a nice player, not a star, and you’d probably be better off with one year of the elite guy.
Or, alternately, if you don’t think defense actually matters much, then you want Ozuna, as their career wRC+ — 115 for Machado, 113 for Ozuna — marks are basically the same. Machado’s value gap is almost entirely about the fact that he’s an elite fielder, and if you don’t care about fielding, then you want the two years of Ozuna. On the other hand, Machado is talking about going back to shortstop while Ozuna would play right field in St. Louis, so if you care about offense relative to some positional baseline, Machado again takes a big edge.
For what its worth, Steamer has Machado as about a +6 WAR player, with Ozuna at around +3.5 WAR, assuming 600 PAs for both. But that’s a pretty optimistic forecast for Machado, who was legitimately not great at the plate last year. ZIPS has him at closer to +4 WAR per 600 PAs, putting much more weight on his down year in 2017. Among players at this level, there might not be a guy that ZIPS and Steamer disagree on as much as Machado. So if you’re a ZIPS guy, you probably want Ozuna’s extra year. If you’re a Steamer devotee, you want Machado.
It is worth noting there is also a payroll component here. Machado is projected to earn about $17 million in arbitration this year, while Ozuna comes in closer to $11 million. $6 million isn’t that much these days, but it’s enough to buy some decent depth piece such as a middle reliever. For a team over the CBT threshold, that $6 million difference would also get taxed, and could push the cost this year up to $9 million if they’ve been over the limit three straight years. The money isn’t different enough to be the primary factor in deciding which one to pursue, but acquiring Ozuna probably does leave you a bit more wiggle room to go get another guy to round out your roster.
In reality, I think the value is pretty close. A win-now team should probably prefer Machado, while a team with a longer window to win might want Ozuna. Obviously, if you have a bigger hole in the OF than at SS/3B, that would make the decision easier as well. But let’s just say you ran a team that could get a similar improvement at either position, and had enough budget space to acquire Machado or Ozuna plus some smaller second piece. And let’s assume the acquisition cost is roughly the same, with both Miami and Baltimore looking for your organization’s equivalent of Flaherty and Alcantara. Which one are you trading for?
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.