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Mozeliak Must Have Something Up His Sleeve. Maybe Marcell Ozuna’s Sleeves?

‘Tis the season of the trade rumor, and we’ll be riding the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl as it moves faster and faster toward the July 31 deadline for making deals.

Here’s some chatter from Mark Feinsand of MLB.com:

“Would the Cardinals consider trading Marcell Ozuna? According to a source, the outfielder is not the most popular player in St. Louis’ clubhouse. With one more year of arbitration eligibility left before becoming a free agent, Ozuna — who is having a subpar season in his first year with the Cards — could benefit from a change of scenery and bring back a prospect or two for St. Louis.”

Three things:

1. I can’t tell you about Ozuna’s overall popularity inside the St. Louis clubhouse. But I do know there’s been some grumbling over Ozuna’s resistance to accept advice from coaches and teammates that try to help him get into the swing, so to speak. Ozuna’s off-balance lunging at virtually every pitch isn’t working too well for him. So if Ozuna is serving as his own hitting coach, then he needs to fire the batting coach — himself — because he’s a terrible hitting instructor.

2. Feinsand, a very good reporter and writer, should be in line for a humanitarian award for categorizing Ozuna’s season as “subpar.” The phrasing was merciful, polite, and civil. Going into Wednesday’s game at Cincinnati, Ozuna was batting .175 with a .221 onbase percentage and .200 slugging % in July; that slug ranks 227th among 232 MLB hitters for the month. And for the season, among the 11 cleanup hitters that have at least 250 plate appearances batting fourth, Ozuna ranks 11th in OPS (.680), is 11th in slugging (.374), and is 11th in Isolated Power (.112.) Only Adrian Beltre has fewer extra-base hits than Ozuna (21-20) … but Beltre has 138 fewer plate appearances than Ozuna at cleanup this season.

In park-adjusted runs created (wRC+), Ozuna this is how Ozuna stacks up against the other 10 cleanup hitters who had at least 250 PA through Tuesday.  Please keep these two things in mind: 100 is the overall league average, and 112 is the MLB average for No. 4 hitters this season … meaning that cleanup hitters, as a group, are performing 12 percent above league average offensively.

Giancarlo Stanton,  177

Scooter Gennett,  148

Nelson Cruz,  141

Khris Davis,  131

Nick Markakis,  127

Edwin Encarnacion,  116

Travis Shaw,  114

Adrian Beltre,  96

Albert Pujols,  89

Salvador Perez,  88

Marcell Ozuna,  85

Ozuna is 15 percent below the overall MLB average offensively, and he’s 27 below the MLB average offensively for cleanup hitters.

3. I don’t believe the Cardinals will trade Ozuna. I’m told by a source that the Cardinals aren’t pitching Ozuna to other teams.

Why would that be? I can think of several reasons:

>> The Cardinals packaged four prospects to Miami to acquire Ozuna from the Marlins last offseason, and aren’t prepared to walk away from the investment. Not after 100, 110 games.

>> Call it professional pride, or just professional patience, but president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch aren’t freaking out over Ozuna. Disappointed, yes. Somewhat confused, yes. Ozuna wasn’t going to match his jarring 2017 eruption for 37 homers, 124 RBIs and a .548 slugging percentage, but there’s no way the O-man should be sitting on an overall .373 slugging percentage 101 games into the season.

>> For perspective consider this:  Royce Clayton slugged .370 in 1996, Jose Oquendo slugged .371 in 1989, and Dick Groat slugged .371 in 1964. No disrespect to those gentlemen shortstop-infielders, but they didn’t get paid to hit for power. Ozuna was coveted for power, acquired for power, receiving a $9 million salary for power, and is installed at cleanup for power. But Ozuna’s power, so far, is that of a light-hitting utility/defensive guy.  Mozeliak and Girsch have to believe that the power is coming, given the statcast reports that put Ozuna in a favorable light for exit velocity, barrel percentage, hard-hit percentage. Based on the quality of contact, statcast lists Ozuna with an “expected” slugging percentage of .483 — so in other words, this will even out.  He’s been unlucky. I don’t buy into that all the way  — simply because of Ozuna’s high volume of hard ground balls — but sure, he’s capable of going off.

>> When baseball men make big moves — high-profile trades, significant and costly free-agent signings — they won’t be quick to acknowledge failure (if at all), and they won’t give up (if ever) until exhausting every effort to get a player or pitcher to validate the team’s investment. This would explain the presence of Brett Cecil and Greg Holland in the St. Louis bullpen.

>> Given Ozuna’s power outage, his trade value (presumably) would be on the low side, rather than the high side. Or, to put it a better way: His trade value would be lower now than his market appeal last winter.

>> Ozuna is only 27, and can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season. By letting the situation play out, positive developments are possible. And those developments can create options. Ozuna can get hot down the stretch this year … he can command more in a trade after the season … or maybe his big-boom season will come for the Cardinals in 2019. He’ll be more relaxed won’t feel the first-season pressure that comes with being  touted as the “Missing Piece” to the Cards’ lineup … The Guy that the Cardinals and their fans have been longing for. Playing in front of small crowds for a non-contending team in a market (Miami) where baseball is a minor source of interest is a helluva lot different than playing in St. Louis where the Cardinals are everything. That might take some getting used to.

OK, for the sake of discussion … let’s just say the Cardinals decide to keep Ozuna at the trade deadline, and stick with as part of the plan for 2019. This would lead to questions:

* If Dexter Fowler returns in 2019 — and with his hard-to-move contract you have to think his return is inevitable — where does everyone play? Do the Cardinals plan to revolutionize the sport by going with a four-man, or perhaps a five-man, outfield?

* Harrison Bader already has been nudged aside, and he’s been the team’s best outfielder this season. Before starting Wednesday in Cincinnati, Bader had made only 11 plate appearances since Mike Shildt took over as manager on July 15. Yep, 11 plate appearances for Bader compared to 35 for Ozuna, 32 for Fowler and 32 for Tommy Pham. Not an issue with Pham; through Tuesday he was 12 for 28 (.429) with two doubles, a homer, eight RBIs, eight runs and a 1.107 OPS since Shildt replaced Mike Matheny. And Fowler’s bat was regenerating; through Tuesday he’d stroked two doubles, two homers and slugged .500 since Shildt returned him to the starting lineup in a reversal of Matheny’s policy. Still, it seems a little odd to be icing Bader … and even in icing Bader and limiting him to 11 PA before Wednesday the dude still got a lot of things done in those 11 PA: four hits in nine at-bats (.444) two walks, a double and a 1.101 OPS.

* In his last two games for Triple A Memphis (Sunday and Tuesday) outfielder Tyler O’Neill walloped five homers and drove in seven runs. Let this man eat! He’s leading the Pacific Coast League with 25 bombs, is second with a .706 slug, has raised his OPS to 1.078, has a preposterously great .397 ISO, and an equally superb if absurd .443 wOBA. The strongest player in the Cardinals organization has done an excellent job of reducing his ground ball rate; O’Neill’s 0.61 GB/FLY ratio this season is the best of his career. I mentioned this earlier this week, but let’s do it again: The Cardinals told O’Neill he had to work on improving his plate discipline. He’s done just that, with his lowest strikeout rate (23.6%) since his rookie-ball season in the minors (2013.) And O’Neill’s walk rate (9.1%) has been moving closer to double digits. O’Neill is hitting over .300 for the first time (.308), has pumped his OBP up to .372, and can play all three outfield spots. According to the statcast data, the only Cardinal who runs faster than O’Neill is Bader. Combining his at-bats in Memphis and St. Louis this season, O’Neill has 28 homers in 258 ABs; that’s a HR ratio of a blast every 9.2 at-bats. And he’s driven in a run every 3.9 at-bats.

Not sure what O’Neill, 23, is supposed to be learning at Memphis … seems like he’s ready for the show  right now. But the Cardinals have no room in their outfield. And they are committed to playing Ozuna and Fowler at the expense of two younger assets, Bader and O’Neill, who may be better players — with more upside — at this time.

Moreover, the Cardinals have other outfield prospects (including Oscar Mercado) who are tracking to St. Louis. Where will they fit? Who will be traded or discarded to make room? At what point does pure talent and the willingness to put your best possible team on the field overtake payroll/investment considerations as the top priority in making personnel decisions?

I don’t know.

Mozeliak and Girsch will have to figure that one out.

And they have a lot to unpack, and untangle.

I do know this much: The Cardinals have a surplus of outfielders, and they aren’t necessarily playing the best outfielders, which means that more talented and capable outfielders are standing on the outside, or sitting on the bench — and goodness, that sure is an interesting way to go about catching up to the Pirates, Brewers and Cubs in the NL Central.

Wasting assets is a really fine plan for action if your team’s goal is to clinch fourth place in the NL Central in 2018, and probably 2019, and perhaps even 2020. But enough snark from me. I’m holding off on making a judgment call for now;  the July 31 trade deadline will reveal all. Surely Mozeliak has something up his sleeve — maybe even Ozuna’s neon sleeves, which are automatically included in a trade.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Presenting the Goofiest Stats of Marcell Ozuna’s Weird 2018 Season