The Miami Marlins finally brought back Marcell Ozuna from Triple-A after Christian Yelich's knee contusion landed him on the disabled list for the second time in 2015. For Ozuna, it represents a long-awaited return to the big leagues and necessary assistance for a talent-starved Marlins team that is also missing its best player, Giancarlo Stanton. The Fish are bereft of hitters beyond Dee Gordon, and having Ozuna back should be a welcome addition to the offense.
Of course, the circumstances regarding Ozuna's demotion and return have been more under scrutiny than his actual return. As Ozuna mentioned to the Miami Herald, his time in Triple-A felt like "jail" to him.
"I was in the jail over there. It’s like a jail," Ozuna said of his time with the Zephyrs. "But it’s OK. I’m back, and I’m going to help the team, help Miami."
Why did Ozuna feel like it was jail? The Marlins had a clear ulterior motive for demoting the 24-year-old outfielder above and beyond his play in 2015. Thanks to an early promotion in 2013 after another Stanton injury, Ozuna was slated to reach just enough playing time to earn Super Two arbitration status for 2016 This means that he would make likely $1.5 million-plus more than he would have made had the team held off promoting him until later in the season.
At the time, the Marlins had their hands tied. For whatever reason, Ozuna was the only outfielder remaining on the team's 40-man roster, meaning they had to promote him or make room for another outfielder by designating someone else for assignment and risking losing a player for nothing. The club promoted Ozuna, and he had a reasonable season with expected ups and downs for a 22-year-old rookie. The club even tried to demote Ozuna once it had enough talent back in the outfield, only to have him get hurt and end up on the Major League DL for the rest of the season.
The Fish faced a conundrum in 2015. With Ozuna struggling, they had an opening, and they rightfully explored it by demoting Ozuna during his struggles. Yes, the motive was more likely financial than improvement, but the team has to act in its best interest and hope that the resulting fallout was manageable. This is somewhat similar to situations of players like Starling Marte and Carlos Correa in which teams with players performing well in the high minors still hold off promotion until they can avoid Super Two problems. The Marlins did the demotion at the only appropriate time available to them, with Ozuna mired in a slump and having a mediocre season overall.
Ozuna felt that the discussion was dishonest regardless of the Marlins' reasonable explanation.
"They tell me you’re going down for work, get your feeling back and you come back," Ozuna said Saturday. "I know what happened when they sent me down. I knew that’s coming. I don’t go there for work, because they know me. I don’t need the work. One for 36, 1 for 100, every big-league player has it. I have it and everybody has it."
It may have been a veiled attempt, but it was still an understandable veiled attempt. The savings Miami could have garnered were reasonably significant, especially since the arbitration scale would be pushed back another year. The overall savings over four seasons could be around $10 million.
Still, as the injuries and ineffectiveness in the majors began to worsen, Miami had fewer and fewer excuses. Giancarlo Stanton was injured in the previous week, and once it was evident that he was going to have an extended DL stint, the Marlins had less reason to turn to the likes of Cole Gillespie and Ichiro Suzuki for a long time. Also, once Ozuna began hitting well in the minors, it was much harder to make the argument that he was down there to resolve any continuing issues. Ozuna spent 132 plate appearances in the minors and hit .317/.379/.558 (.406 wOBA), showing that he did not need much work to get back on track. As he said in the above quote, being on a one-for-36 slump does not necessarily indicate a mechanical issue, but rather simple variation.
Unfortunately for Ozuna and the Fish, once the club committed to this move, their most beneficial move was to stick with it rather than abandon it midway. Ozuna needed to spend a significant amount of time in the minors in order for the service time benefits to be seen; if a player is optioned to the minors for fewer than 20 days, they actually receive Major League service time for their trip to the minors. That means the Marlins had to keep Ozuna down for 20-plus days in order for this demotion to have been worth the animosity that it caused.
Of course it was going to cause animosity, especially given the agent involved in Ozuna's situation. Scott Boras already declined the Marlins' overtures on an early extension for Ozuna, and any chance that might have happened after 2015 is all but gone now that Ozuna's camp has been angered. You can bet that arbitration negotiations are going to be a little more difficult now as well, with Boras infuriated over the demotion.
Still, this is unlikely to make a significant difference in terms of salaries or long-term outlook. Ozuna was never going to sign an arbitration-covering deal with Boras on board, so the odds were pretty low to start. The two parties can always go to arbitration, so the salaries may ultimately be determined by a third neutral party.
The only thing this ugly, but ultimately justified, affair has led to is more speculation and a higher chance that the Marlins will deal Ozuna. Still, the team simply cannot do that at this time. The Marlins secured pre-arbitration prices for 2016 with their move this year, so Ozuna will still hold great value to the club next year. A trade now seems more imminent, but it needs to occur only after Ozuna has had time to rebuild his value. It would be pointless for Miami to sell him at his lowest point, even if it thinks it is unlikely that the team will be able to retain him long-term. While this does make it more likely he will be traded before he reaches free agency in 2020, the two sides will have to work together to find mutual benefit despite this spat.