The Hot Stove season is underway, and much of the free-agent attention is focused on five players: J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, George Springer, DJ LeMahieu and Marcell Ozuna. Where will these players land? MLB.com reporters gathered a roundtable to discuss.
In this installment, we debated
Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Marcell Ozuna put himself in a great position with a breakout season — albeit a short one — to be one of the top free agents on the market. But he may be viewed as a DH by some teams. Do you think that could hurt his candidacy? Or are his defensive flaws a little overblown?
Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin, White Sox beat reporter): The White Sox had some interest in him last season, but it was more as a DH. They are definitely looking for a right fielder who can play the field on a regular basis.
Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman, Braves beat reporter): His defensive flaws are real. As this season progressed, I was reminded of the times last season when scouts would say, “I don’t think you understand how bad he is defensively.” With that being said, I think most teams are assuming we’ll once again have a universal DH. So his market will be very strong as he will draw widespread interest.
Jesse Sanchez (@JesseSanchezMLB, MLB.com national reporter): There’s never been any doubt about Ozuna’s ability to hit. He’s going to hit no matter where he goes. That should be a good thing. But yes, I do think you have to look at his defensive shortcomings when making a long-term commitment and investing millions of dollars. He seems like the perfect player for the AL because of his flaws. He’s an outfielder now, but maybe he plays first base in the future. He can stay in the NL if he can play a little first in addition to outfield.
Merkin: The universal DH will be infinitely important for his market, because there’s no doubt he can hit.
Footer: So that could be an issue, the DH thing, right? We hear it might be back in the NL in ’21, or it might be on the bargaining table for the new CBA in ’22. That’s a bad spot for Ozuna to be in.
Bowman: He certainly could benefit from getting clarity on this issue. This has been my biggest issue with the DH. Whether you go back to Albert Pujols’ free agency or that of an aging catcher like Brian McCann, the AL teams have had an advantage with some free agents because they can comfortably offer an additional year or two knowing the wear and tear won’t be as significant.
Merkin: The White Sox have Andrew Vaughn, who is their No. 1 prospect overall, and he will probably be part of the Major League roster for all of ’21 and at the very least most of it. They have José Abreu, the AL MVP, at first, so Ozuna would have to fit in right field for them and not sure if that fit would work for them. Vaughn will start at DH, but eventually move to first in ’22 and beyond.
Sanchez: The team that signs him is signing him for his bat. He can help a team win now and I think that will also factor into a club’s decision: “We sign Ozuna and win a World Series next year or in two years, we can deal with limited defensive abilities.”
Bowman: That’s a good point, Jesse. If you do doubt the DH will remain universal, but you still believe in the longevity of his power, then moving him to first base might make some sense. If so, I can’t wait to see him jump on top of a dugout railing while chasing a foul ball.
Sanchez: It’s not fair, but I do think people remember him trying to climb the wall in left field, falling down and the ball bouncing right by his head. That’s how some people see his defense. It’s obviously not that bad all of the time, but he’s not a guy you want out there in the outfield with the game on the line.
Footer: Our executive reporter, Mark Feinsand, listed these teams as possible suitors: Braves, White Sox, Red Sox, Cardinals, Rangers, Astros, Twins, Padres. Let’s start with the Braves — how valuable was he to the ’20 team? How motivated do you think the Braves are to sign him to a multiyear deal? How much of a step back would it be to proceed without him? Obviously, that lineup doesn’t necessarily need him.
Bowman: When Freddie Freeman won the NL Most Valuable Player Award, he made a point to say his success was influenced by Ozuna hitting behind him. Whatever offensive limitations Ozuna might have had following shoulder surgery were not visible this year. His exit velo, barrel rate and other similar metrics were better than they were during his great 2017 season.
Sanchez: His numbers were great! But I think that’s the tricky part. The season was only 60 games and how would those numbers play out in 162? I think the team that signs him will have to do some serious projections. But here’s what we know: He hits and hits the ball hard, he’s an impact player and his defense is what it is. I think 2020 helped his case, but it’s hard to make a decision based solely on how outstanding he was at the plate this year.
Bowman: What really stood out to me was how great of a teammate he was. We didn’t get a chance to know him really well before Spring Training was shut down this year. But you could see the energy he brought to the field during the early days of Summer Camp. He was a great influence on Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and many of the other Braves. He has a great baseball IQ and a tremendous memory that helped both him and some teammates with their approach against certain pitchers this year.
Merkin: The White Sox love those great clubhouse/great influence/high energy sort of players.
Sanchez: And I wonder what Ozuna wants. Does he want to win now or does he want a big contract? Maybe he gets both but sometimes you have to pick one or the other. The Braves seem like the perfect spot for him if they can come close to what the market is offering. Just so many fits there on so many levels.
Bowman: I’m pretty sure at this stage of his career, landing with a potential winner is near the top of Ozuna’s wish list. Coming back to the Braves depends on the presence of the DH and where the significant demand takes his price tag. The Braves have had success with the one-year deals given to Josh Donaldson and Ozuna over the past two years. But the risk of continuing to buy these lottery tickets is the chance of busting like they did with Cole Hamels. Busting in that manner with an offensive piece would leave a hole in the lineup and lessen the value of both Freeman and Acuña.
Sanchez: Ozuna reminds me of Edwin Encarnación a bit. Edwin had a decent run during his 20s but has really excelled during his 30s. If Ozuna can match Encarnación’s production or come close, that’s a big win for the team that signs him.
Bowman: That’s a great point, Jesse. He hit 10 of his 18 homers in September and three of those were tallied on the same day. You would be taking a risk on the value created by this one tremendous month. But that’s going to be the case with every free agent this year. Also, it’s not like Ozuna just woke up when August ended. He had a .922 OPS in the 34 games he played before September arrived.
Merkin: Players raved about Encarnación for his presence in the clubhouse. Despite the White Sox making a plethora of moves last offseason, they still have a young core. But Edwin didn’t hit, so the White Sox are back to the drawing board for filling out this roster. I still believe DH will come from within, as in Vaughn.
Footer: Scott, how would a bat like Ozuna’s boost the White Sox lineup? That would be quite a splash for a team that everyone thinks is on the cusp of bigger and better things.
Merkin: They are loaded with right-handed power — Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal are switch-hitters and the rest of the regulars are right-handed. They had high hopes for Nomar Mazara, who is a left-handed hitter, after acquiring him last year, but he battled through strep throat during the end of Summer Camp and never got on track. They have another year of control on him, but I don’t look for Mazara to return.
So ideally, the White Sox would like a left-handed bat who can play right field. But they’ve already been linked to George Springer, who is the top bat on the open market, so they are looking for production over handedness, ultimately.
Sanchez: The Rangers need somebody like Ozuna. The offense was near the bottom in almost every offensive category and they need a star for the new ballpark of theirs. I can see them making a big play for him. He could play into his 30s in Arlington splitting time in the outfield, DH and first base.
And Ozuna is younger than Springer … just sayin’.
Merkin: Ozuna would be a great fit on the [White Sox] team and in that lineup. But I think the defensive issues will create a problem in terms of overall interest. They have Luis Robert in center, who is a Gold Glover and prides himself on covering line to line anyway. But they need someone who can play regularly in right field with some confidence from the team. In left field, they have Eloy Jiménez, who is a great kid, a great hitter but a work in progress defensively.
Sanchez: I think if you have a Gold Glover in center, you can have a bronze glover in right.
Merkin: And Robert would be more than happy to cover from left to right anyway. Maybe the White Sox just go with two outfielders based on Robert’s range — I kid.
Bowman: Jesse, I’ll repeat what the scouts said to me last winter: “I don’t think you understand how bad he is defensively.”
Footer: Last question — this is where I put you on the spot. Your prediction — where does Ozuna sign? Go!
Merkin: I think he stays with Atlanta, especially if the universal DH stays.
Sanchez: Rangers. They will pay. They need an impact player and somebody to get the fans excited. He can play multiple positions. They’ll love him in Texas, in the clubhouse and in the community.
Bowman: I’ll predict he ends up with the White Sox. They are obviously looking to build on last year’s success and his power would prove quite valuable in that ballpark for many years to come.