The Yankees enter the winter with a laundry list of needs. They face a critical decision on whether to keep DJ LeMahieu in pinstripes. They have only two starters penciled into the rotation. The bullpen appears to be at its weakest point in a half-decade. And although their needs are less imperative at other positions, you can be sure that they will be checking in with all the names at the top of the market.
Of all the available free agents, perhaps none put together as productive a season from a power standpoint as Marcell Ozuna. He slashed .338/.431/.636 with an NL-leading 18 home runs and 56 RBIs. His 175 OPS+ and 179 wRC+ were good for fourth and third respectively in MLB.
These ridiculous numbers are the results of Ozuna posting personal bests in a number of metrics. He set career marks in exit velocity (93 mph), walk rate (14.2%), barrel rate (15.4%), and hard hit rate (54.4%). That’s right: more than half of his batted balls were hit at least 95 mph!
Since the inception of the “Statcast Era,” Ozuna has punished baseballs more consistently than almost anyone else. His 91.4 mph average exit velocity is good for 23rd in MLB since 2015, sandwiching him between Yoenis Céspedes and Jorge Soler. Ozuna reached new heights in 2020. He became one of the best examples of the idea that the more you hit the ball hard, the better you can expect the results to be.
Yup, that red circle is Ozuna. He was one of the best in the league at frequently crushing the ball and matching it with an optimized launch angle. He was a veritable Statcast darling. Batted ball data stabilizes much more rapidly than counting or rate stats — doing so in about 50 batted ball events — so despite the shortened season, it is a large enough sample from which we may draw relatively meaningful conclusions. (Can you guess who the highest and farthest right data points are on the graph? Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., truly two megastars in the making.)
Ozuna has been a consistently good-to-great player since his debut season in 2013. He posted two 4.5+ fWAR seasons with the Marlins. He would have blown past these totals if his performance in 2020 had carried through an entire season, as he was on a nearly seven-fWAR pace. Several projections do not expect that type of production to be sustainable, as ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth charts predict he will be worth 2.8, 2.9, and 3.0 fWAR respectively in 2021. That’s respectable to be sure, but nowhere near his 2020 pace.
Despite proving that he is one of baseball’s premier power hitters, there are three major obstacles that would prevent the Yankees from signing Ozuna. The first is that he represents a surplus to requirements. The Bombers already have a logjam of corner outfield/DH types. Clint Frazier finally earned the full-time starting role in left, while Giancarlo Stanton will be the primary DH per Brian Cashman, so adding Ozuna doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Another factor that may scare the Yankees away is Ozuna’s defense. It’s terrible. As the Braves’ primary DH in 2020, he did not log enough innings in the outfield to qualify for the Outs Above Replacement leaderboard. However, in 2019 with the Cardinals, his -8 OAA placed him in the fourth percentile of all MLB fielders.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the price tag likely doesn’t match up with the Yankees’ priorities. FanGraphs predicts Ozuna will sign for four years and $70 million, while MLB Trade Rumors has him pegged for about the same, at four years and $72 million. For a team that may try to slip below the $210 million CBT threshold, Ozuna may be too rich for the Yankees’ blood.
Marcell Ozuna picked the perfect time to post a career year, setting personal bests in nearly every category as he entered free agency. In doing so, he probably priced himself out of the Yankees’ budget this offseason. Although Ozuna would fit in well since the Yankees have hoarded almost all of the hardest hitters in baseball over the past few seasons, he just doesn’t make sense as a target for the Bombers this winter.