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Rays Free Agent Target: OF/DH Marcell Ozuna

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The case for the Rays to land what might be the big fish in free agency

League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For the last couple days — a mere week before Spring Training in what may be the slowest offseason we’ll ever experience — the Rays have been connected in rumors and online to one of baseball’s best hitters: free agent OF Marcell Ozuna.

Appearing in all 60 regular season games last season, Ozuna put up an astounding 179 wRC+ over 267 plate appearances with 18 home runs. His .437 wOBA and .417 xwOBA were the best in baseball and, digging deeper, his 54.4% hard hit rate, 15.4% barrel rate, .315 xBA, and 93 mph exit velocity were all in the top five percent or better among hitters.

The Big Bear — and that’s not a GameStop stock market reference, it’s his nickname — has been in the top 10% of hitters in exit velocity and hard-hit percentage for essentially his entire career. Despite some poor luck in 2019 that saw him post a mere 109 wRC+, he was still in the top 10% in xSLG and xwOBA as well.

In other words, the potential he showed early in his career was not a flash in the pan. Marcell Ozuna is good and can be expected to stay that way; the second coming of Nelson Cruz, only 11 years younger. (Cruz just re-signed with the Minnesota Twins for $13 million.)

A gold glove and silver slugger winner in 2017, the current version of Ozuna is best served as a Designated Hitter, which was the role he played with the Atlanta Braves in 2020 after signing a one-year, $18 million deal with the eventual National League runners up, DH’ing in 39 of 60 games.

A free agent again, Ozuna may have to settle for a one-year deal again in his age-30 season, but there’s a chance he’s interested in something longer. FanGraphs projected a four-year deal for Ozuna, something probably well earned. Ozuna was a 2.5 WAR contributor in 2020 in just 60 games, a six-win pace or better.

Ozuna is not only good, he’s too good for the Rays to be in this conversation. The largest AAV ever given out by the Rays is Charlie Morton’s $15 million, and Ozuna has already landed more than that in his career. So what gives?

The easiest answer is that Ozuna’s agent needs a smokescreen. With the National League entering the season without a designated hitter at this stage, Ozuna’s market is starting to fall apart and the Braves are likely finding there’s no one to bid against that’s also a contender.

Minnesota just took themselves out of the running by locking up their DH with one of baseball’s best, and the Yankees have Giancarlo Stanton entrenched. Unless the Astros or Blue Jays want to enter the chat and throw some cash around, the logical alternative here is certainly the Rays, who have cleared $15-20 million in payroll off the roster in the rotation’s reshuffling.

But can the Rays even compete for a top shelf signing? Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said in the past he would pay $25 million for a one year deal if the player was of Gerrit Cole’s caliber, and the Rays have been bidders on big name gambles in recent years (Craig Kimbrel, Corey Kluber).

They can if the bottom has fallen out on his market. And in that scenario, going to the ALCS winner or NCLS runner-up has to be a leading proposition for a hitter of Ozuna’s quality on the wrong side of 30, even if it means another year of betting on himself to turn a strong performance into yet another contract.

Marc Topkin in the tweet embedded expects a one-year deal is the Rays most recent offer, and that’s fair. There’s another CBA on the way that could radically change the landscape for players and teams.

This all comes down to what Ozuna can be expected to be. A three-win designated hitter is an exception, not the rule, and the Rays haven’t paid top dollar for a DH since the last time they lost the World Series... Luckily, this candidate has already shown that he can perform as a majority designated hitter. (If you enjoy small sample sizes, Ozuna had a 200 wRC+ in games he was the DH for Atlanta in 2020.)

If Ozuna is indeed the second coming of Nelson Cruz, that’s a DH who has averaged a four-win pace since 2014. But that’s the best case scenario, and we know the Rays are risk averse.

A recent fake tweet claimed the Rays offer to Ozuna was for four-years and $88 million, an absurd proposition. The pandemic baseball environment seems to have limited how the Rays can compete on the free agent market, thanks to the lack of attendance and increased cost of safety measures, and the ongoing consequences of a year without revenue sharing.

Nevertheless, the Rays should be able to connect with Ozuna on a one-year deal easily.

In fact, if he’s willing to take a one year deal, a team that can offer designated hitter at bats is in the best interest of all. If you want me to project a salary, the best thing for the Rays would be to request a reasonable guaranteed amount that just edges Nelson Cruz’s $13 million standard.

If the Rays are lucky, maybe they could start with a lower guaranteed amount with escalators based on plate appearances to mitigate risk while also increasing the ceiling for the final payout.

League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Four Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Is that the deal you imagine after putting up one of the best hitting performances in recent memory? Not at all, but Marcell Ozuna taking the mercenary’s path to competing with the best team he can find annually isn’t the worst way to make a living, especially when it promises such strong odds for contention.

In a multi-year deal scenario, it’s much harder to imagine the Rays are players. Perhaps three years with an option or two works for all sides, and allows the Rays to push cash payments to a couple years down the line to a buyout on that option, moving cash flow to when revenue streams are more normal.

If you’ve followed me this far and desperately want to know what I think a Rays offer for three years of Ozuna means, it all comes down to the WAR projection and the level of risk the Rays are willing to take on. In that scenario I’d expect the Rays to be risk averse and offer something that is borderline insulting if you are of the mind that Ozuna is worth a qualifying offer on an annual basis (even if the Braves couldn’t offer him one this season, per CBA rules). But enough stalling.

What does a long term deal look like for Ozuna?

Last offseason OF/DH Nick Castellanos landed a four year, $64 million deal from the Reds with a fifth year option, and that’s probably a better baseline for Ozuna at this stage. Then again, if you can factor in the impacts of 2020 on payroll, maybe something like 4/60 instead is acceptable for all sides, but even with all that talent I think it’s going to be a much lower floor in years beyond 2021. Accordingly, my three-year deal is probably something more like 8/16/18 with negotiation available for a fourth- and fifth-year option.

It’s not what Castellanos got, and therefore it’s not enough. So it’s really a one-year deal where the Rays should have the best chance to be successful here.

And if Marcell Ozuna is willing to take a one-year deal? There’s no excuse for the Rays not to be front runners.