While we wait for the St. Louis Cardinals to sign a free agent — or two or three — this winter, I would love to see the team spend a little bit of time taking care of some in-house business.
The club paid a steep price in terms of talent to land Marcell Ozuna in a trade with the Miami Marlins last winter. He can be a free agent at the end of the 2019 season. Why wait until the last minute to lock him up? Ozuna struggled a bit with his power last season, hitting .280 with 23 home runs in 2018 after slugging 37 over the boards with a .312 batting average the previous year with the Fish. The St. Louis front office seems to be confident he’ll be healthy in 2019. So what’s the hold up?
While the Cardinals need an additional bat to compete with their lineup as things stand right now, if they don’t sign Ozuna, they will either be back in the market for a bat next winter. If Ozuna leaves at the end of the upcoming campaign, the Cardinals might need TWO big bats. That’s not a risk worth taking when the supporting crew of Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Harrison Bader and the young, talented pitching staff are already in place?
If I am a big time free agent like Bryce Harper, the money is going to be important in the decision about where I sign to play for the next decade or so. But the second most important consideration is that I would want to go to a place where I was going to have a chance to be in the playoffs and win a World Series or two. Without Ozuna, the Cardinals don’t really have any protection in the batting order for Harper. Unless his goal is to lead the league in walks, St. Louis would be a much less attractive place to play. The St. Louis front office did itself a disservice when it spent Albert Pujols’ final year in St. Louis loudly repeating the falsehood that the team couldn’t afford both Pujols and Matt Holliday. If I was a mega star, I would be concerned that I’d lock myself in to a situation where the team would disintegrate around me.
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Ozuna worked well in tandem with Giancarlo Stanton when they were both in south Florida. I suspect, if St. Louis is able to add a cleanup hitter, Ozuna seems perfectly suited to bat third with the capability to hit for high average and pile up extra base hits. While he was productive last year, if his shoulder is healthy, I fully expect the left fielder to be a legitimate impact player next season. If the team waits to sign him until then, the price could be considerably higher.
I’d imagine signing Ozuna now would send free agents a message that the Redbirds are committed to the idea of building a contender.
But, most importantly and beyond what Harper or any other individual free agent thinks, the Cardinals need to do something to keep their core better to keep the franchise’s momentum headed in the right direction. If they’re as enamored with Ozuna as they were when they traded Mags Sierra and Sandy Alcantara for him, they ought to do what they can to ink the 28-year-old outfielder to a five-year or so extension.
The St. Louis front office seems to miss the timing to make deals, coming up a day late and a dollar short too often. Now is the time to plan for the future — not just in 2019 — but also beyond that.