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Mariners rumored to be interested in outfielders Marcell Ozuna, Shogo Akiyama

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Take a whiff of that new off-season smell, it’s rumor time.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

All we have heard from Jerry Dipoto on the Mariners’ plan for this off-season is to expect a quieter winter, and anticipate lots of the work to be done early and late. Earlier today, Joe Doyle took a stab at how that might manifest. Naturally, however, we’ve gotten a few tidbit rumors already this fall of the M’s sniffing around two talented outfielders who will have a fair bit of interest this off-season. It is unlikely that either Marcell Ozuna or Shogo Akiyama start 2020 in Northwest Green, but their divergent talents would fit on any competitive team and Seattle hopes to add that to their resume again sooner or later.

World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 2 - USA v Japan

We’ll start with Akiyama. As we noted in the Moose Tracks yesterday, via Friend of the Site Joe Veyera, via Nikkan Sports in Japan, (was that so hard, New York Times?) longtime Saitama Seibu Lions outfielder Shogo Akiyama intends to test interest from MLB this winter. The 31 year old has a reputation as a balanced lefty hitter with capable defense in center field, and set the Nippon Professional Baseball record for hits in a single season back in 2015 with 216 in 143 games. His swing stands out at first glance for the pause in his leg kick mid-load, like Johnny Cueto or Hisashi Iwakuma might mid-delivery to the plate.

While this is leads to a plethora of moving pieces, Akiyama has never struggled with strikeouts, and in fact ran quite impressive 11.5%/15.9% BB-K% in 678 PAs this year with the Lions. Per the NPB analytics site Deltagraphs, Akiyama was a 5.1 WAR player this season, ranking 9th among position players, with a 142 wRC+, a .303/.392/.471 line, 20 HRs, and a 12/20 clip on stolen bases. Most of those numbers are good things, though the speed numbers have regressed as expected with Akiyama entering his 30s. Longtime NPB writer Jim Allen deemed Akiyama a once-elite defender whose athleticism has regressed to merely above-average play, though his numbers per Deltagraphs also show decline.

There is exciting info from those peripherals as well, however. Akiyama scarcely gets cheated at the dish, running sub-20% soft contact rates and hard hit rates over 40% each of the last few years. His tendency unfortunately is one of fly balls or grounders, creating a slightly boom-or-bust result in theory. He’s managed to run >.300 batting averages four of the last five seasons all the same, with his low at .293 in 2016. Based on his profile, with a center-pull heavy profile, Akiyama seems to do significant damage when he lifts the ball, however a more shift-heavy defensive culture in the U.S. might do significant damage to his BABIP and limit his impact.

If Seattle is truly interested, they will have competition from both their own competitors and the NPB’s ranks. Akiyama is a true free agent, having reached not only posting eligibility but actual free agency within the NPB. The upshot for MLB teams is that he will not incur a posting fee, as his contract rights do not belong to any NPB club. On the other hand, the Lions have publicly stated they intend to offer a hefty extension to keep their longtime star west of the Pacific. Akiyama’s market could vary wildly, with teams needing to commit to his age 32 season and beyond.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The other name is one most MLB fans will know, though Mariners devotees might not have seen much of. Marcell Ozuna (no relation to Roberto Osuna) is a personal favorite of mine, though his career has been a touch erratic. The 28 year old came up through the Marlins system, and this is not the first time Jerry Dipoto’s Mariners have been connected to the slugger. While Dipoto didn’t blink on sending Taijuan Walker or James Paxton to Miami for Ozuna then, he was also unable to convince them to take Roenis Elías and/or Nate Karns as recompense. Since then, Ozuna has remained an enigmatic talent.

In 2017, he was an All-Star caliber player, and made his second straight All-Star game with the fish. He clubbed 37 dingers with a maybe-juicy-but-not-all-the-way-juiced-ball and appeared to be fully fledging into the stardom he’d long been projected for. That performance led the strip-mining Miami to deal him to St. Louis for a more impressive package of prospects than future MVP Christian Yelich.

Fast-forward two years and the Cardinals are likely disappointed, though not dejected. “The Big Bear” was an above-average player in 278 games with the Redbirds, but 5.4 fWAR over two seasons barely eclipses his single season output in his final season with Miami. Neither bWAR nor WARP think he even matched that, and while a 108-110 wRC+ from a decent outfielder is a positive player, it’s not the star many expected. When this is the most memorable play of your season, things tend to have gone at least a little awry.

Much like Akiyama, the market for Ozuna will be tricky to gauge. Ozuna at his best is a terror to pitch to - a 30+ HR talent who has struck out <20% of the time over the past couple years and absolutely scalds the ball (48.1% hard-hit rate, 7th in MLB per FanGraphs, 96th percentile per Baseball Savant). He’ll be 29 in 2020, matching him with Yasiel Puig and Avisail Garcia as one of the youngest position players coming off a full-time role this year (Nicholas Castellanos and Jonathan Schoop are 28). But Ozuna will be entering his eighth season in the league, with a Moustakas-esque resume that pins him in the upper crust of MLB’s much-maligned middle class. Do teams (and, most pertinently, the Mariners) view his elite exit velocity, above-average athleticism, and sparks of stardom as something he can maximize in the second half of his career, further removed from the hapless Marlins? And if so, what will they be willing to pay?

I do not expect the Mariners to reel in Ozuna, particularly considering how much of their future is invested in their talented teenage LL Cool J’s. If the Mariners are to make an investment this offseason, however, they either need to make a savvy one in a short-term capacity for a player who can be flipped to a contender, or identify someone who they are confident will be as productive in 2020 as in 2022-23. The younger the better, if that is the calculus, and Ozuna at least fits that bill. If Ozuna is truly commanding the numbers rumored above, and can leverage himself as the Eric Hosmer of this winter there’s just no way this is realistic. If things trend somewhere closer to A.J. Pollock’s 5/$60 million or Lorenzo Cain’s 5/$80 million? We might get a follow-up article at least.