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Fantasy Baseball Debate: Marcell Ozuna vs. Justin Upton

Marcell Ozuna and Justin Upton are back to back by average draft position in fantasy baseball leagues. Who should fantasy owners prioritize?

The Debate Series will pit two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Gabriel Baumgaertner and Michael Beller debate Marcell Ozuna and Justin Upton.

Gabriel Baumgaertner makes the case for Ozuna over Upton…

Nobody in the National League, let alone Miami, was going to overshadow Giancarlo Stanton in a season where he hit 59 home runs, but it’s a shame that Marcell Ozuna’s brilliant 2017 campaign was, in turn, overshadowed. The 26-year-old outfielder compiled a season worthy of Miguel Cabrera or Manny Ramirez’s prime: .312/.376/.548 with 37 HRs and 124 RBI. He tied for sixth in hits (191), logged an OPS of .924 (higher than Anthony Rizzo and, ahem, Justin Upton) and took a career-high 64 walks (his previous best was 43). All of which to say that, after his first few years were wracked by inconsistency, Ozuna is becoming one of the most well-rounded hitters in Major League Baseball.

Ozuna won’t have the protection of Giancarlo Stanton in St. Louis, but he enters a balanced lineup that will offer him plenty of chances to create runs. Unlike Upton, whose annual protracted slumps can ruin your team’s output for weeks at a time, Ozuna is emerging as a remarkably consistent hitter: His average didn’t dip below .300 after May 2, and he had one of his best months (.321/.368/.532 with six homers) in September to cap off a long, disappointing season in Miami right in playoff time for fantasy owners.

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He’s consistent, he’s powerful and he’s entering his age-27 season. Picking Ozuna high in your draft is a no-brainer.

Michael Beller makes the case for Upton over Ozuna…

No player in any sport in recent memory was a victim of his own early success and unreasonable expectations than Upton. When he hit .300/.366/.532 with 26 homers and 20 steals in his age-21 season back in 2009, a lot of people around the league thought we were looking at 21st century Ken Griffey Jr., just from the right side of the plate. When he turned out to be more Raul Mondesi, that was somehow seen as a significant letdown, but it was only because the conclusions drawn from one year were so ridiculous in the first place.

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Fast forward nearly a decade, and Upton, now 30, remains one of the most productive outfielders in the game. He had a resurgent 2017 season, hitting .273/.361/.540 with 35 homers, 14 steals, 109 RBI and 100 runs scored. He was one of three players with at least 30 homers, 10 steals, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored last year, joining Charlie Blackmon and Paul Goldschmidt. He also smacked 44 doubles, giving him 79 extra-base hits. That had him tied for seventh in the majors with Aaron Judge. Upton racked up 137 wRC+, creating more offense, measured in weighted runs, than Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado and Corey Seager.

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Now, to be fair, Upton’s 2017 season was more than a bit of a surprise. He hit for good power in 2015 and 2016, but totaled a .248/.323/.460 slash line those two seasons. He was still walking a good amount, posting walk rates of 11% and 8%, but his low batting average kept his OBP and slugging percentage down. The batting average surged back last season to levels Upton hadn’t reached since his mid-20s, and while there is some noise in the statistic, it’s mostly signal that got him to where he used to be.

Upton’s BABIP jumped to .341 last season, 40 points higher than it was in 2016, and 37 points better than the season before that. An increase that dramatic can be driven by luck, but that was not the case with Upton. First, his hard-hit rate leapt to a career-high 41%. There are only so many things a hitter can control once the ball is put in play, but, generally, the harder one hits a ball, the better the chance that it ends up finding some grass, if not the seats. There, too, Upton found some improvement. His fly-ball rate remained steady when compared with the previous three seasons, but his HR/FB ratio climbed to a career-best 21.2%. Homers don’t count toward BABIP, but Upton’s increase HR/FB ratio is further evidence that he was hitting the ball harder last year, thus earning his significant BABIP increase.

Power has never been an issue for Upton. In his last five seasons, he has 27, 29, 26, 31 and 35 homers. He has also found his legs again in recent years, stealing at least 14 bags in two of the last three, and averaging that same 14 per season in that timeframe. Upton, then, is part of a rare group of players that we can safely project for 30-plus homers and 10-plus steals. At worst, he’s a four-category player who’s a slight drag on your rates. That’s the floor. The ceiling, however, is a five-category star who again hits 35-homer, 10-steal, 100-RBI, 100-run thresholds. In the last 10 seasons, no more than four players have reached all of those in a single season. You have to go back to 2006 before you need to use both hands to count the number of players to do that in an individual year. Upton is part of the exclusive group whose members can clear those marks.

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Ozuna may be coming off a phenomenal season and in his physical prime, but we’re not exactly talking about the picture of consistency here. Before last year, he had a career slash line of .265/.314/.427, with a 162-game average of 20 homers and 78 RBI. He also has 10 steals in his entire career, so he’s not going to help you there. The Cardinals’ new left fielder is a great player in his own right, but he doesn’t, and may never, measure up to Upton.

Upton isn’t chasing Griffey’s ghost any longer, but only because we don’t expect him to. We finally appreciate him for what he has become: one of his era’s most complete offensive players. Nothing more, nothing less.