Is Ozuna the next Cespedes?

If you were looking for a sure bet on a transaction that would happen this winter, it would have been hard to go wrong with "The Marlins will trade Marcell Ozuna." Ozuna was previously seen as part of the team’s young core, but a poor first half of the season saw him eventually get demoted to Triple-A in July, and the team ended up leaving him down in the minors for more than a month, to the point where agent Scott Boras accused the organization of manipulating Ozuna’s service time in order to keep him from gaining arbitration eligibility this winter. Ozuna was clearly unhappy with the organization’s decision, and both sides seemed interested in a change of scenery.

Well, according to Jerry Crasnick, that change may be imminent.

Under new General Manager Jerry DiPoto, the Mariners have begun a roster makeover designed to significantly improve the team’s athleticism. They’ve already imported center fielder Leonys Martin from the Rangers in an effort to upgrade the team’s outfield defense. However, the team is still in need of a right fielder, and there aren’t many more athletic outfielders in baseball than Ozuna, so the match seems to make sense. But while Ozuna has played a solid center field to this point in his career, and should be an above average defender in right field long-term, he’s still an intriguing player because of the lingering thought that he might have an offensive breakout still to come.

Before the 2015 season, FanGraphs author Tony Blengino called Ozuna "the next big thing," noting that he had the profile of a player who could be a "well-rounded superstar." Instead of living up to those lofty heights, however, Ozuna regressed to a .259/.308/.383 batting line, hitting only 10 home runs while continuing to post contact rates that only work for guys who can drive the ball consistently. But while the 2015 season was a bit of a disaster, the concepts that pushed Blengino to see Ozuna as a player with significant upside are still in place.

First of all, Ozuna hits the ball very hard. Among the 265 players who had at least 150 at-bats with measured Statcast data last year, Ozuna’s 92.8 mph average exit velocity ranked 13th best in MLB, putting him in a virtual tie with the player he’d be displacing in right field, Nelson Cruz. On the strength of his ability to blister the baseball, Cruz hit 44 home runs last year, but Ozuna hit the ball — on average — just as hard, despite his meager offensive performance. The good news: Almost every player who hit the ball as hard as Ozuna did last year was an offensive monster in 2015.

Consistent hard contact — which Ozuna had shown before, which was part of the reason Blengino was so high on him — is a foundational skill. And while guys like Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez are reminders that you have to do more than just hit the ball hard to be a great hitter, the majority of guys who possess this skill turn into significant offensive contributors. Additionally, Ozuna has displayed an all-fields approach that has historically been shown to develop power at a slightly later age than pull-conscious hitters. Given that he just turned 25 a couple of weeks ago, there are reasons to think Ozuna might not be a finished product yet. Keep in mind that the Marlins rushed him up from A-ball in 2013 — he played just 10 games in Double-A before getting called up to the big leagues. He’s held his own against big-league pitching despite a lack of minor league development time, and players who can succeed against big league pitching early in their careers often go on to turn into significantly better players as they reach their physical primes.

With an overly aggressive approach at the plate, Ozuna has to be very productive when he does make contact in order to be high-quality hitter, and he hasn’t shown any real signs of improvement in terms of pitch selection, so it’s tough to profile Ozuna as a great hitter with his current approach. However, there’s a free agent on the market with a very similar set of physical skills and a similar deficiency in getting on base that is expected to sign for something in the neighborhood of $150 million this winter: Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes and Ozuna
2013-2015 BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Cespedes 6% 21% 0.216 0.298 116
Ozuna 6% 24% 0.151 0.328 101

 

If Ozuna has a power spike, he’s basically Cespedes 2.0, even down to the ridiculous outfield arm. That power spike isn’t guaranteed, of course, and would require Ozuna to elevate the baseball more frequently, but if he figures out how to get more lift and trades singles and doubles for home runs, Cespedes is Ozuna’s upside.

This summer, Mike Petriello of MLB.com used Statcast data to find MLB’s true "five tool players", establishing minimum statistical baselines for the traditional scouting measures. That list included Mike Trout, of course, along with Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gomez, Lorenzo Cain, Hunter Pence, Ian Desmond, and Cespedes and Ozuna. Ozuna is the only one of the eight players on the list who has not (yet) made the All-Star team. His physical comparisons suggest that he might one day join his peers.

Of course, there’s a good amount of risk here, and the Marlins wouldn’t be trading Ozuna if he had already lived up to his potential. MLB history is full of players who have remarkable physical gifts but can’t translate into consistent production, and at this point, Ozuna remains more potential than proven quantity. But as a 25-year-old who projects as an above average big leaguer in 2016, and has the kinds of skills that could lead him to develop into a +3 or +4 WAR player, Ozuna is one of the most intriguing buy-low candidates in baseball. If the Mariners really can find a way to add him to their revamped outfield, DiPoto’s makeover of the team’s roster may yield dividends sooner than later.