The Marlins’ fire sale continues apace, this time to the benefit of the Cardinals. On Wednesday afternoon, Miami and St. Louis livened up a dreadfully dull Winter Meetings by agreeing to a deal sending All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna from Florida to the Midwest in exchange for pitching prospect Sandy Alcantara, outfielder Magneuris Sierra, and two other minor leaguers. Ozuna isn’t the Marlins outfielder that the Cardinals initially wanted—that would be Giancarlo Stanton, who rejected a deal that would’ve sent him to St. Louis and ultimately ended up with the Yankees—but he should still provide a big boost to an outfield that needs it.
Ozuna, 27, was quietly a star for the Marlins last season, breaking out to the tune of a .312/.376/.548 line in 679 plate appearances with 37 home runs, 124 RBIs and a 145 OPS+—tenth best in all of baseball. His 142 wRC+, meanwhile, topped those of George Springer, Charlie Blackmon, Cody Bellinger, Justin Upton, and Anthony Rizzo, among others. A legitimate threat at the plate, Ozuna is also a top-flight defender, winning the Gold Glove for his work in leftfield and grading out positively by Defensive Runs Saved (+11 last season, +13 in his career in left). All of that added up to 5.8 WAR—equal to Paul Goldschmidt’s season.
Ordinarily, a 27-year-old who was worth as much as an MVP finalist is the kind of guy you build around. But this being the Marlins, now amid the umpteenth rebuild in franchise history, Ozuna was marked for departure by the new ownership group of Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter, which already dumped Stanton and Dee Gordon as part of a plan to slash payroll dramatically. That is despite the fact that Ozuna is still arbitration eligible and making relative peanuts: He took home just $3.5 million last year. MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections had him pegged to get a raise to a more representative $10.9 million this winter, but that’s still a very fair price for someone as good as he is.
The real key here isn’t the money, though; it’s that Ozuna wouldn’t be Marlins property for much longer even if they hadn’t traded him. Ozuna will hit free agency after the 2020 season, and given that Miami has punted on the next two seasons at least and stressed the need to pare down spending in order to pay off the franchise’s substantial debts, he would’ve been as good as gone once he reached the open market. For a team already committed to tanking, keeping Ozuna to put up gaudy numbers on a 110-loss team would have been pointless.
Miami’s loss will be St. Louis’ gain, and a big one at that. Ozuna is no Stanton, but he will stabilize an outfield that was unexpectedly wobbly in 2017. Usually a franchise that pumps out four- and five-win outfielders like a factory, the Cardinals got a surprise season in 2017 out of Tommy Pham (23 home runs, 144 OPS+, 6.4 WAR) but next to nothing out of former top prospects Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The former hit just .238/.285/.473 across 122 games and earned a month-long demotion to Triple A in late May. Grichuk did go deep 22 times, but that came with a staggering strikeout rate—30.1%, which would’ve been the fifth-highest in the majors had he enough at-bats to qualify—and a total inability to hit anything but a fastball. Piscotty also turned in a dud year, limited to 107 games by several injuries (and also getting sent down to Triple A during the year) and hitting just .235/.342/.367 when he was healthy, and may be headed to Oakland as part of a separate trade.
Ozuna’s arrival will rejigger the Cardinals’ outfield, with him likely taking over in left and Pham moving to center to replace veteran Dexter Fowler, who was already set to move to a corner spot thanks to his declining defense. Offensively at least, that’s arguably the best outfield in the NL. Ozuna will also provide much-needed power in the middle of St. Louis’ lineup, which didn’t see a single hitter top the 30-homer in 2017 (rookie infielder Paul De Jong led the team with 25 dingers). With Ozuna in the fold, the Cardinals’ offense should see a jump. Whether that will be enough to challenge the Cubs or the ascendant Brewers in the NL Central remains to be seen, but regardless, the Cardinals got younger and better at a time when they were seen to be in decline.
They gave up a fair amount to do that, but no top prospects were sacrificed. Alcantara is the headliner: A 22-year-old righty out of the Dominican Republic, he’s posted strong strikeout numbers in his time in the minors and was solid if unexceptional in his first taste of Double A last season. Tall but slim, Alcantara got a cup of coffee with St. Louis late in the year and was ranked ninth in the system by MLB.com thanks to his hard fastball (94–96 mph on average) and average-to-good secondary stuff. Nonetheless, he’s struggled with his command and may be better suited to a relief role long-term. Sierra, meanwhile, is a 21-year-old Dominican who ranked sixth in MLB's list. Built like a greyhound at 5'11" and only 160 pounds, he runs like one too, boasting plus-plus speed that makes him a potential game-changer on the bases and in the outfield. He remains a raw prospect offensively, however, hitting for little power and not showing much plate discipline in the minors. It's a decent return for Ozuna, although both Alcantara and Sierra are no bets to become anything more than average regulars, if that. Both will shoot to the top of Miami's prospects list, though that's more by default thanks to the team's awful farm system.
The question now is, after having shipped out Stanton and Ozuna, whether the third member of that formerly dynamic outfield, Christian Yelich, will follow his former teammates to greener pastures. That would be the trickiest trade for the Marlins to execute, as Yelich is the youngest of that trio (26), the furthest away from free agency (under team control through 2022) and already signed to a team-friendly deal (just $43.25 million over the next four years as part of a seven-year extension he signed in March 2015). That combination makes him worth a king’s ransom in prospects, but it also positions him as the most likely centerpiece of Miami’s post-rebuild future, even if Yelich himself wants no part of that grim horizon (given this wordless tweet post-Stanton trade that nonetheless spoke volumes).
As of now, the Marlins are telling teams that they’re not trying to move Yelich and will instead build around him. But there are no half measures in rebuilds, and with this being the path the Marlins have put themselves on, there’s no recourse but to run the race in full. Moving Yelich is the logical next step. As super-agent Scott Boras weirdly put it earlier Wednesday, the Marlins have gone from jewelry store to pawn shop (which suggests that Boras either lives in a bizarre neighborhood or doesn’t know how to build a metaphor), and there’s no point in keeping the luxury items if you’re selling everything else.
Hopefully for Marlins fans that have even less to look forward to this year than they did this morning, the next generation of Stantons, Ozunas and Yelichs are in their future. And hopefully the owners—be they the Jeter/Sherman group or someone else—will be able to keep them.