Why Braves were smart to sign Marcell Ozuna and what his deal means for Yasiel Puig, Nicholas Castellanos
The corner outfield market has been slow-moving this winter
Entering the offseason, the corner-outfield market featured three players of comparable value: Marcell Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, and Nicholas Castellanos. Those three were so intertwined that we ranked them consecutively on our top-50 free-agent list. They've remained connected all winter as none of the trio had landed a job until this week. , but Castellanos and Puig remain on the free-agent market.
So what do the numbers say about the future of each corner outfielder? And how does Ozuna's deal impact the markets for Castellanos and Puig? Inspired by Dayn Perry's recent breakdown of third baseman Josh Donaldson, let's dive in on Ozuna, Puig, and Castellanos using an analytical framework.
With rare exception, corner outfielders are around to hit. It's a good thing, then, that our three players have all been above-average sticks the past three seasons. Ozuna has been the best of the bunch, posting a 122 OPS+ since the start of the 2017 campaign. Castellanos isn't far off, at 120, while Puig is a bit further back at 112. Ozuna also had the best single-season effort of the trio, hitting for a 149 OPS+ in 2017, back when he was a member of the Miami Marlins.
Teams evaluate players based on more than their actual results these days -- they also look at underlying measures that tend to bode well for future and/or sustainable success.
With that in mind, let's hit on a few important notes.
Ozuna leads the trio at hitting the ball hard. His average exit velocity has topped 90 mph in all five seasons of the Statcast era, according to Baseball Savant. Comparatively, Castellanos and Puig have combined for one such season -- that being held by Puig.
So far as launch angle is concerned, all three finished within a tight window last season: each had a launch angle between 13.5 and 14.2 degrees, with Ozuna and Puig serving as the bookends. Puig, though, took an unusual route to the catbird seat: He posted monthly launch angles above 16 degrees in April, May, and June, and then of 11 degrees or lower in July, August, and September. His power numbers dipped as well, as evidenced by him homering only twice after a July trade to Cleveland.
Castellanos also lowered his launch angle after joining the Chicago Cubs. He was far, far more productive with the Cubs, however, which shows that hitting is more than launch angle and launch angle alone.
In terms of expected offensive production heading forward, we'd have Ozuna in the lead with Castellanos second and Puig third. (Note that Steamer, the projection system offered at FanGraphs, has the three ordered the same way.)
The corner outfield is an offensive position, but that doesn't mean defense is irrelevant. Public defensive metrics are a mess, to put it kindly, so let's sprint through some bullet points:
Ozuna was the worst defender of the three in 2019, according to Statcast's Outs Above Average metric. Ozuna finished eight outs below par, a touch worse than Castellanos (-7). Puig was a scratch defender on the whole, making him a relative Gold Glover.
Conversely, Baseball-Reference's Defensive Runs Saved metric has Ozuna being worth 20 runs over the last three seasons. That's second to Puig (24), but far better than Castellanos (-49).
Baseball Prospectus's defensive metric also has Puig as the best defender of the trio since 2017 (more than nine runs). Ozuna has seen his standing decline in consecutive seasons, resulting in -8.4 runs overall -- still a good bit better than Castellanos (-15.3).
Our evaluation would have Puig as the finest glovesman of the three, with Ozuna in second despite him ceding ground recently as he's dealt with arm issues. Castellanos is a riddle; he's far more athletic than his defensive measures suggest, but that's been the case for a while. Perhaps it's a matter of finding the right instruction, or, at least, the right defensive positioning.
What, you thought we'd forget about baserunning? Hardly.
Per Statcast, Puig covers the most ground of the three, stomping across more than 28 feet per second in sprint situations. Castellanos (27.9) checks in a bit behind Puig, with Ozuna (27.4) serving as the laggard of the group.
It is worth noting, perhaps, that Puig had consistently recorded a handful of "bolts" in each preceding season -- a bolt is a run where he covered more than 30 feet per second. That streak ended in 2019, suggesting he may have lost some top-end speed.
Those numbers concern only the physical aspect of running. When it comes to putting that speed to use, it's been Ozuna -- yes, the group's turtle -- who has recorded the most baserunning runs, at three, per Baseball-Reference. Both Castellanos and Puig were in the red, at -3 and -4.
How does Ozuna lead the pack in that metric? By being a choosy thief (he's swiped 16 bases at a 76 percent clip the last three seasons; Puig has stolen 49 at a 73 percent success rate, and Castellanos is a non-factor), but also by being a cunning opportunist. Ozuna has taken the extra base 46 percent of the time the past three seasons, making 14 outs on the basepaths along the way. Puig and Castellanos each made 24 outs on the basepaths, with Castellanos taking the extra base 43 percent of the time, and Puig checking in at 39 percent.
To summarize those points: Puig is the quickest and most likely of the three to attempt a steal. He's also the least effective baserunner due to his propensity to run into outs. Ozuna, from a results perspective, is the best of the three in this regard -- even if he is the slowest, which could in time lead to him becoming a negative as well.
Why Ozuna rates as the best of the trio
Based on the numbers we've laid out above, Ozuna does indeed look like the best of the trio. He's the one with the most offensive success and offensive indicators, including, improbably, on the basepaths.
As for the second spot, we had Puig there entering the winter and there's a case to be made he should remain there now. As you saw throughout, though, Puig is true to his volatile reputation, mixing good with bad in a way that doesn't endear him to everyone.
Castellanos has a thinner base of skills -- he can hit and that's about it -- but you can almost foresee a team preferring his safe mediocrity to Puig's up-and-down ways.
Free-agent outlooks for Puig, Castellanos
He'll be 28 this season and he's coming off a stellar two-month stint with the Cubs. In 51 games with the North Siders, Castellanos hit .321/.356/.646 with 21 doubles and 16 homers. Could the sell point for Castellanos and his agent, Scott Boras, be that he was not feeling it while playing for a terrible Tigers team and then was rejuvenated once he went to a contender?
It seems possible, but we've got Castellanos' long-term track record down.
In the last four seasons, he's hit .286/.336/.504 with an average of 41 doubles and 24 homers per season. The average has stayed between .272 and .298 while the OPS has been between .811 and .863. He's pretty consistent on a year-to-year basis.
Simply, you're going to get a good, but not great, bat who doesn't field well (as noted above).
The Reds reportedly being in on Ozuna with a multi-year deal is really intriguing as it pertains to Castellanos. They've been aggressive this offseason and could play him as an everyday left fielder instead of a Jesse Winker/Phil Ervin platoon. He'd slot in nicely as a five- or six-hole hitter behind the likes of Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Mike Moustakas.
Puig was on the Reds last season before they dealt him to the Indians. In all, he hit .267/.327/.458 (100 OPS+) with 24 homers and 19 steals. Both the Reds and Indians could use outfield help, but neither has really been connected to Puig in rumors.
Instead, the White Sox and Marlins were linked to Puig, but it's been incredibly quiet on this front for a while. With Ozuna signed, maybe Castellanos needs to sign before the Puig interest ramps back up. It's worth mention that the fit with both the Marlins and White Sox would make sense for various reasons.
Puig is a firebrand, for sure, but he has a good track record and hit .264/.337/.490 (119 OPS+) between 2017 and 2018. He's generally good for 20-plus homers and 15-plus stolen bases. He marks an upgrade in the outfield for more than a few teams, it's just a matter of him getting interest here before spring training.
These are the two best free agents left on the market and spring training is just weeks away. Hopefully both sign relatively soon.
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