Climbing out from a rebuild often requires a catalyzing event. The incremental growth of talent in an organization can slowly wax into contention, but the best way to build a good team quickly is acquiring more good players. For the Cubs, it was signing LHP Jon Lester coming off a 73-89 season that earned their fifth straight fifth place finish in the NL Central. The Padres threw their weight around in free agency back to back seasons in signing 1B Eric Hosmer and 3B Manny Machado to ensure their young roster had some impact potential. The White Sox spent last offseason making additions across their roster, boosting their lineup and rotation with C Yasmani Grandal and LHP Dallas Keuchel and yielding an excellent playoff roster after seven straight sub-.500 campaigns. MLB’s current climate incentivizes allowing good be the enemy of great, but the Mariners are far from a lock to be either. With uncertainty looming about which teams will take advantage of the penny-pinching of their competitors, there is a second layer of unknown that could help Seattle capitalize on the market. MLB has told teams to prepare for a 2021 season without a universal DH, making several of the top talents in the free agent class less appealing to 15 of their potential suitors. For arguably the best hitter in the class, LF Marcell Ozuna, that could make Seattle a spot to bring legitimacy and get a better deal in return.
The pitch for why Seattle should sign Ozuna is exceedingly easy. He’s one of the best available players in the class, only just turned 30, and doesn’t have the risk of losing a draft pick attached to him. His primary position, left field, is the biggest hole in the Mariners’ lineup. He’s coming off a (shortened) season where he didn’t miss a game and had the 3rd-highest qualifyied wRC+ in all of MLB at 179, trailing only Juan Soto (who didn’t even scrape 200 PAs) and his teammate and NL MVP Freddie Freeman. It’d take a mighty big slump to hide 267 PAs at .338/.431/.636, if you’re inclined to see Ozuna’s breakout as a flash in the pan, and while his grades have been mixed defensively, the Mariners cannot claim they have a better option in house, even on the farm.
Assuming Ozuna doesn’t have a particular bee in his bonnet about the Pacific Northwest, money is the main impediment to this otherwise excellent fit. Projections range on what Ozuna is expected to pull in pay, but most seem to have him around four years, $70-75 million, for around $17-19 million annually. Despite my repeated efforts to guess John Stanton’s bank login info, it’s Not My Money, but if that’s enough to reel in slugger they call The Big Bear, I’m strongly in favor. Right now the Mariners are 2-3 Marcell Ozunas away from having a league-average payroll, and while I see no need for the club to spend money just for spending’s sake, there is conversely no reason to suppress payroll or spend the money on shorter deals for worse players when the team could simply reel in one likelier to be good.
Ozuna is athletic, exuberant, with one of the quickest bats in the league. A major issue holding Ozuna down as a merely solid hitter prior to 2020 had been a slice, as many of his hits tended to have a spin issue that few hitters can sustain at his level. As was well-noted, Ozuna was recovering from a lasting shoulder injury that carried through 2018 and needed surgery prior to 2019. As Matt Wallach at Pitcher List noted in looking at Ozuna, the slice that had hurt his batted ball outcomes seemed remedied for the healthier Ozuna, helping him return to a 5-win pace in 2020, as he’d shown in 2017 prior to being dealt from the Marlins. Ozuna’s next club shouldn’t expect a .391 BABIP to follow him, but the career high walk rate of 14.2% came as a result of his improved bat speed offering better reaction time, as well as his titanic power forcing pitchers to nibble, upping their pitch counts and providing free passes. The Mariners have not had enough high-quality hitters in their lineup in the past few years, and reentering contention will require more thumpity-thump-thump.
At the offseason’s outset, I considered writing up Ozuna, but pushed him down the list as he felt too far-fetched. I still doubt he ends up in Seattle, but the uncertainty around the National League and the universal DH creates a serious market issue for Ozuna. After taking a one year deal with Atlanta last year to get his qualifying offer out of the way, Ozuna proved it about as well as he could, leading the league in plate appearances and obliterating the baseball. For Atlanta, however, he was often relegated to DH duties for part or all of the game, as the Braves were fortunate to have a fleet of defensively exceptional outfielders. Seattle has some versatility, but between Kyle Lewis, Mitch Haniger, Shed Long Jr., and Ty France, there’s a number of options for folks who can rotate into the lineup almost every day but would be well-served with either the extra rest the DH spot can provide or the lessened defensive pressure. The 30 year old Ozuna has some blooper reel blunders, but generally moves passably and is somewhere between below-average to average depending on what metric you prefer. His bat has more than made up for it at every turn, and if and when Seattle decides to call up their prospects to finally stretch throughout the oufield, it will be easy to get Ozuna, Lewis, Haniger, and Kelenic into the lineup every day, assuming they are all healthy and performing.
A deal like what Ozuna would command hardly sets Seattle back in the short or long term, and gives the club both the infusion of legitimacy and a spark of reality to the claims and expectations the front office and executives have been placing on their club. Ozuna alone doesn’t make this roster a contender, but he alone could make it far easier to see a playoff pathway without squinting so hard it hurts. Seattle already has the advantage of a chance to add payroll significantly in a time where many clubs seem loathe to spend money. Jumping on the uncertainty around the rules for the coming seasons is another reason to move now, before Ozuna’s market, including what would be some of his most fervent and well-fitting suitors in Atlanta, Washington, and L.A. have a chance to settle on how to construct their clubs or not.