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Marcell Ozuna’s wacky bounceback season

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Marcell Ozuna posted a decent season for the Marlins as part of a comeback campaign. Was that enough to keep him in Miami?

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Miami Marlins, all things considered, have to be happy with Marcell Ozuna’s performance. He is hitting .270/.324/.470, a batting line that is slightly better than his marks from 2014, when he broke out in a big way. He has been solid on the field, and his overall value puts him at about three wins on average for the season. A three-win campaign is a great return from a guy who really struggled last season and was demoted to Triple-A for an extended period of time under the guise of performance-based problems. Had Ozuna played well enough last year, the questions of whether the Fish demoted him to manipulate his service time, which is almost a certainty it seems, would have never come up. The team would not have demoted him had he played as well as he did in 2014 or this season.

It is a nice return to prominence for Ozuna, who was once pegged for potential stardom and was a part of the team’s “best outfield in baseball.” However, a look at Ozuna’s season tells a very streaky and down-trending story.

It does not get much worse in terms of performance than Ozuna’s second half. After putting up a May for the ages and starting for the National League All-Star team, Ozuna’s game took a nosedive in the second half. He went from a .307/.360/.533 (.377 wOBA) first half to an awful .205/.260/.362 (.267 wOBA) second half. After finishing the first half with 17 home runs, he has just six to his name in hte second half and is boasting just a .157 ISO. This has been a slump for the ages for Ozuna.

What has been the culprit? That is not so clear. In terms of plate discipline, you might argue that Ozuna has been better in the second half. He has struck out and walked less, but at a 15.5 percent strikeout rate, you can tolerate lower walk rates from a guy with power. He is even swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone in the second half (30 percent) as compared to the first (33 percent).

One would presume that he simply is not squaring up on the ball, and part of that is correct. One of the major advantages that Ozuna had in the first half is that he lowered his ground ball rates down to 42 percent, which let him launch more balls with his prolific power. He still is seemingly hitting the ball hard, as his hard-hit ball rate has been at 38 percent both in the first and second half, but the ground ball numbers are back up to 47 percent, which is around his career norms.

All of this performance, both recent and overall, weighs heavily heading into the offseason. Marcell Ozuna is set to go through arbitration for the first time, and you might expect him earn a decent chunk of change based on the fact that he had such a hot May and earned an All-Star bid. Those things hold precedent, even if they seem like a distant memory to some thanks to that second half. Ozuna is unlikely to sign a team-friendly extension to avoid arbitration and lock in prices. The Marlins are going to struggle to keep their payroll less than $100 million while still retaining all of their talent and trying to improve in areas such as the starting rotation. The club already wants to re-sign Martin Prado to a new contract in an ideal scenario. All of these financial aspects play a role in the Marlins’ willingness to retain a player whom they seriously considered dealing one year ago.

Had Ozuna retained his strong play throughout the year, the Fish would be hard-pressed to sell the club as a contending team while dealing one of its offensive mainstays. An Ozuna with a .370 wOBA would be a star in the making, but if the Marlins wanted to sell contention in 2017, they would have a hard time replacing his production in the lineup. If he had another bad year at the plate, trading him would make sense, but the team would get little value back for him. This scenario is almost the best option for trading him. He returned to around the value he had in 2014 when he was a budding star, but he has not taken a step beyond that and still has lingering questions. He would still return a decent haul as a player under three years of remaining team control and some potential still left to be tapped, but the Marlins could still sell this as trying to improve the team for next year if it can acquire the right near-Major League ready pieces.

The problem is if any team will realistically bite on this scenario and provide the team enough value to compensate. The club has no ready alternatives for Ozuna, and while there are some passable outfield options in the free agent market, spending more money in the open market may be against what the Fish want to do. At the same time, they could be preparing to move on from Ozuna with them having played Christian Yelich in center field a decent amount this season. The default of keeping Ozuna another year and reassessing the situation after 2017 is the safe choice, but it is also strictly the short-term option and it does not offer to help Miami in the long haul. Ozuna’s bounceback season was just good enough to be enticing but just bad enough to not lock Miami into a commitment in their quest to contend in 2017. Maybe the right long-term move is to move on from Ozuna barring the right trade package is present.