Marcell Ozuna keeps it light at spring training
Last year at this time, Marcell Ozuna was one third of arguably the best outfield in baseball.
But that entire unit has been dismantled and its parts sent to other teams as the Miami Marlins' new ownership group set out to slash $50 million in payroll.
Of the three, Ozuna was the only one who hadn't requested the trade from Miami. He said he understands that Derek Jeter and his partners have a business to run and that his job is be a good teammate and give the fans a reason to cheer.
It's a very simple equation, says the St. Louis Cardinals' affable new left fielder.
"Just play the game, enjoy the game and have fun," Ozuna said. "If you have fun and your family is OK, you’re going to play well ... Being in the lineup is my best part. Hitting eighth or leadoff, it’s being in the lineup that’s important to me.
"Playing every day makes me feel happy.”
The 27-year-old Dominican maintains his home in Miami, which he shares with a wife and three children. As long as a trade from the Marlins was inevitable, though, he said he's glad it was to St. Louis, where winning is an expectation and where Busch Stadium crowds are twice the size of those he's used to.
“The organization here in St. Louis, they always have a big crowd, and that’s what I like,” he said.
Ozuna was with his new team for less than three weeks by the time he had commanded the attention in the Cardinals' clubhouse, getting surprise bear hugs from right fielder Dexter Fowler and strolling the minor league lockers to assign nicknames.
Cardinals fans who have gotten an early look at him in spring training love him, too. He chatted up those behind home plate, who had arrived early to Roger Dean Stadium to watch batting practice from the field.
"Hey!" he would shout to them.
And they would echo back, "Hey!"
That would go on all day, or as long at least as Ozuna was still on the field.
"I like the crowd, which is most important thing to me," Ozuna said. "It makes me feel like I have to fight to give a smile to them when they are yelling for you, like I have to battle every at-bat to do something special."
Ozuna had a similar routine with the bleacher fans at Marlins Park. He'd lead them in cheers between innings and toss souvenirs whenever he could.
"I love his joy for life, watching him play with the fans, watching them respond," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "I think St. Louis is really going to like this guy."
During the offseason, the Cardinals initially targeted Ozuna's Miami teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, who leveraged his no-trade protection to refuse a proposed deal. He and his Major League Baseball-leading 59 home runs eventually were sent to the New York Yankees. Christian Yelich, who also attracted some interest from St. Louis, went to Milwaukee.
St. Louis sent the Marlins minor-league outfielder Magneuris Sierra and pitching prospects Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano to land Ozuna. He had set career highs with a .312 average, 37 home runs, 124 RBIs and a .924 OPS in 2017, which warranted him mention on a few National League MVP ballots.
Ozuna got off to a slow start in spring training, but is finishing with a flourish. In 20 games, the "Big Bear" is batting .345 with three home runs, eight doubles and 12 RBIs. His slugging percentage is .655 and has an OPS of 1.026.
That sort of power transforms a Cardinals lineup that lacked a middle-of-the-order threat that last two seasons.
"You can look around our (lineup), and you can name them by name. They’re all good, but we needed great,” Mozeliak said. “Ultimately, that’s what we were trying to focus on ... We were able to do that with Ozuna, and we think with that addition he’s going to pull some people up with him.”
The Cardinals avoided an arbitration hearing with Ozuna by giving him a $5.5 million raise to $9 million this season. They'll have him this year and next, when he and his agent, Scott Boras, may decide to test free agency.
In the meantime, manager Mike Matheny thinks his new cleanup hitter will influence clubhouse culture like he will the lineup.
"He loves to do the work, he loves to interact with people. You've seen that inside the clubhouse, and we're seeing that outside as well," Matheny said. "All the way around, he's a great addition to what we're trying to do."