Earlier this week, MLB announced it will adhere to the collective bargaining agreement, meaning spring training and the regular season will begin on time, and we'll have a full 162-game season. A full 162-game season as long as the pandemic cooperates, of course.. Soon thereafter
It also means there will not be a universal DH in 2021. MLB offered the universal DH in exchange for an expanded postseason, a trade that is nowhere near fair to the MLBPA, so we'll go back to pitchers hitting in 2021. An 11th-hour deal, similar to last year's expanded postseason agreement, is always possible, though I wouldn't hold my breath this time around.
The lack of a universal DH provides clarity for the free-agent market and it's probably not a coincidence Nelson Cruz, the offseason's most prominent free-agent DH, . He could no longer explore signing with a National League team (or even just use NL teams as leverage), so he returned to Minnesota.
Marcell Ozuna, who was 13 batting average points away from winning the NL Triple Crown last year, remains unsigned, and like Cruz, his best position is DH. He's a defensive liability in the outfield but my goodness can the man hit. Ozuna put up a .338/.431/.636 batting line with 18 home runs en route to a sixth-place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2020.
The underlying numbers on Ozuna, our No. 6 ranked free agent, are among the best in the game. Look where he ranked in various measures of contact quality during the abbreviated 60-game regular season:
- Average exit velocity: 93.0 mph (top 4% of MLB)
- Hard-hit rate: 54.4% (top 3% of MLB)
- Barrel rate: 15.4% (top 6% of MLB)
- Expected batting average: .315 (top 3% of MLB)
- Expected slugging percentage: .638 (top 2% of MLB)
Ozuna is a certifiable beast, and he turned only 30 years old in November, so he is right smack in the prime of his career. He is a difference-making hitter and could swing a division or postseason race. And yet, Ozuna remains unemployed less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, mostly because he's a poor defender.
At some point soon a smart team is going to sign Ozuna and be happy they did. They may have to live with his poor defense, but he'll win more games with his bat than he loses with his glove. Now that we know there will not be a universal DH in 2021, here's a look at Ozuna's market two weeks before spring training opens.
AL teams that could use a DH
There aren't many American League teams that absolutely need a DH right now. Contenders like the Twins (Cruz), Athletics (Khris Davis), Astros (Yordan Alvarez), and Yankees (Giancarlo Stanton) are set at the position. So are clubs like the Angels (Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols), Royals (Jorge Soler), and Tigers (Miguel Cabrera). Here are the American League clubs that can still squeeze Ozuna into their lineup.
Boston Red Sox: It wouldn't be neat but it is doable. The Red Sox could use Ozuna and J.D. Martinez in a left field/DH timeshare with Andrew Benintendi sliding over to center field. That would mean Alex Verdugo stays in right, and free-agent pickup Hunter Renfroe is relegated to a bench or platoon role, which might not be the worst thing in the world. Unlikely, but if the Red Sox really wanted to do it, they could make it work.
Chicago White Sox: An obvious fit for the team and the player. The White Sox currently have Eloy Jimenez penciled in at DH with Adam Engel in left field. Jimenez in left, Ozuna at DH, and Engel on the bench is a clear and substantial upgrade. It would make Chicago's lineup even more right-handed ...
- SS Tim Anderson, RHB
- RF Adam Eaton, LHB
- 1B Jose Abreu, RHB
- DH Marcell Ozuna, RHB
- C Yasmani Grandal, SHB
- LF Eloy Jimenez, RHB
- 3B Yoan Moncada, SHB
- CF Luis Robert, RHB
- 2B Nick Madrigal, RHB
... but who in the world cares with those names? That's a fearsome lineup. Engel can replace Eloy (or Ozuna, I suppose) in the late innings defensively. For all their moves this offseason, the White Sox's payroll is right where it was last year prior to proration. The question is whether owner Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to spend the money to sign Ozuna, not whether he fits the roster.
Seattle Mariners: At the moment Seattle is expected to play Jose Marmolejos in left field and Ty France at DH, so yeah, they can fit Ozuna into the lineup. The Mariners have few long-term commitments -- Marco Gonzales and Evan White are their only players signed beyond 2022 and they're owed a combined $9.75 million in 2023 -- and Ozuna would not stand in the way of top outfield prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Sign Ozuna now and you've added a veteran middle-of-the-order slugger to build around, and you've advanced the rebuild.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays don't have a set DH -- they haven't had a player start as many as 70 games at DH since Luke Scott in 2012 -- and will instead rotate players through the position again. Mike Brosseau, Austin Meadows, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo are the leading candidates for DH at-bats right now. In that sense, fitting Ozuna into the lineup would be a piece of cake. Those other guys can play other positions while Ozuna takes over at DH. Are the Rays really going to spend what it'll take to sign Ozuna though? Hard to believe the answer is yes. He'd have to take an enormous discount to land in Tampa. It works on paper but not on the budget sheet.
Texas Rangers: Sending top prospect Leody Taveras to the minors for more seasoning would be sensible, leaving the three outfield positions to David Dahl, Willie Calhoun, and Joey Gallo. That clears up DH for Ozuna (or, more likely, Calhoun and Ozuna would share left field and DH duties). Texas has been scaling back rather than loading up this offseason, but there comes a point where a player is sitting out there so long that it's hard to pass up an opportunity to sign him, especially if his price is coming down. I would not call it likely, but I would not completely dismiss the Rangers here either.
Toronto Blue Jays: It has been a busy few weeks for the Blue Jays, who added George Springer and Marcus Semien to what was already a very strong position player core. Rowdy Tellez is part of that core, and while he had a nice 2020 season -- did you know Tellez hit .283/.346/.540 last year? -- he is not Ozuna, and it wouldn't be difficult to get everyone at-bats anyway. Consider the possibilities:
- CF George Springer, RHB
- 2B Marcus Semien, RHB
- SS Bo Bichette, RHB
- DH Marcell Ozuna, RHB
- RF Teoscar Hernandez, RHB
- LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., RHB
- 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., RHB
- 3B Cavan Biggio, LHB
- C Danny Jensen, RHB
A little too right-handed but oh well. Biggio is versatile enough to play the infield and the outfield, plus Toronto can always slide Guerrero over to third base for a day, creating playing time at first base for Tellez. There is no such thing as too many good players and Ozuna would make an upstart Blue Jays team even more dangerous in 2021.
NL contenders that should hold their nose for a year
And by hold their nose, I mean stick Ozuna in the outfield this coming season, and live with the poor defense in exchange for the game-changing offense. You can use a defensive replacement in the late innings of close games, and chances are the universal DH will be part of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2022, so the outfield adventure should -- should -- be a one-year thing. Here are a few National League contenders that, for the greater good, should be willing to live with Ozuna in left field in 2021. (You can talk yourself into Ozuna making sense for, say, the Diamondbacks or Rockies, but he almost certainly won't sign with them.)
Atlanta Braves: The most obvious fit in the so-called Senior Circuit. Ozuna was a monster with the Braves a year ago and the club still has an opening in left field after non-tendering Adam Duvall. Stick Ozuna in left field, shade defensive dynamo Cristian Pache toward the left-center field gap, and call it a day. Ender Inciarte can replace Ozuna for defense in the late innings, then, come 2022, Ozuna can go back to serving as Atlanta's full-time DH. Give the Braves and Ozuna a truth serum, and I think both sides would tell you they want a reunion. I don't think the lack of a universal DH is a dealbreaker.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers are not short on offense and they already have three above-average outfielders in Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, and A.J. Pollock. Pollock probably shouldn't stand in the way of an upgrade, however, plus Los Angeles could always put Bellinger back at first base and move Max Muncy to second or third. Their lineup is versatile enough to make all the pieces fit. Assuming Justin Turner returns (an inevitability, I think), think about this:
- RF Mookie Betts, RHB
- SS Corey Seager, LHB
- 3B Justin Turner, RHB
- CF Cody Bellinger, LHB
- LF Marcell Ozuna, RHB
- 1B Max Muncy, LHP
- C Will Smith, RHB
- 2B Gavin Lux, LHB or Chris Taylor, RHB
- Pitcher's spot
Power up and down the lineup and great left-right balance. Pollock is available off the bench and as a platoon option against lefties, of which there are many in the NL West (Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Freeland, Adrian Morejon, Caleb Smith, Blake Snell, Alex Wood, etc.). Los Angeles is nothing if not opportunistic and Ozuna is just sitting there waiting to be signed. That has to be awfully tempting.
Miami Marlins: I don't think the history precludes a reunion. The Marlins traded Ozuna for financial reasons, not because they didn't like him as a player, and Ozuna and his representatives know this is a business. If Miami offers the most money (unlikely, but humor me), they'd be foolish not to consider the possibility. Garrett Cooper is a nice player but not someone who should stand in the way of an Ozuna signing. The Marlins have several top prospects close to assuming full-time jobs (Jazz Chisholm, Isan Diaz, Lewin Diaz, etc.), and Ozuna would serve as a veteran mentor and lineup anchor as the youngsters get their feet wet.
New York Mets: I'm including the Mets almost out of obligation given their free-spending ways under new owner Steve Cohen. At the moment, the Mets figure to play Dominic Smith in left field, so they're willing to live with bad defense in that spot. Sign Ozuna and it means one of him, Smith, or Pete Alonso will be on the bench every day, and I choose to look at that as a good thing. There is no such thing as too many good players. Ozuna's righty thump would help balance the club's lefty-heavy lineup.
Philadelphia Phillies: Signing Ozuna to play left field would necessitate either playing Bryce Harper in center field full-time or pushing Andrew McCutchen to the bench, neither of which is ideal, but this is the sort of tough decision a team that has not finished above .500 since 2011 should not overthink. If you can get a great player, you do it, and figure out how to make the pieces fit later. I'd stick Harper in center, McCutchen in right, and use Scott Kingery as a super utility player, though that's just me.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants have done a tremendous job rebuilding their outfield with low-cost pickups like Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski, though that shouldn't stop them from spending big on someone like Ozuna. My theory is the Giants were planning to make a huge run at Mookie Betts before he signed his extension with the Dodgers, and while Ozuna is not Betts, he's probably the next best thing. San Francisco was on the cusp of the postseason last season -- the Giants had the same record as the Brewers but Milwaukee held the tiebreaker and got the No. 8 seek -- and Ozuna could push them over the hump in 2021.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals have been there, done that with Ozuna and his defense, though they'd be silly to rule out a reunion based on that. Even with Nolan Arenado, FanGraphs projections have St. Louis as the 18th-best team in baseball, and in a virtual dead heat with the Brewers and Cubs in the NL Central. It's not like Harrison Bader or Dexter Fowler absolutely must have lineup spots given their production the last few years, you know? How's this look:
- 2B Tommy Edman, LHB
- 1B Paul Goldschmidt, RHB
- 3B Nolan Arenado, RHB
- LF Marcell Ozuna, RHB
- CF Dylan Carlson, SHB
- SS Paul DeJong, RHB
- C Yadier Molina, RHB ( )
- RF Dexter Fowler, SHB
- Pitcher's spot
I wouldn't sweat the right-handedness of that lineup given the Goldschmidt-Arenado-Ozuna trio. Those dudes can mash. Put Ozuna in left, enjoy the improved offense, and replace him for defense in the late innings. Easy peasy. He just might be the difference between an NL Central title and October visits to the golf course.