For Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna should be just the beginning

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Is it up to the St. Louis Cardinals to stop a Dodgers-Cubs hegemony in the National League? Perhaps.

And if the Redbirds are going to close the gap between themselves and the NL mini-dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles, Wednesday’s no-brainer trade for Marcell Ozuna was an essential one. But it can’t be their final move, either.

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The theme of baseball’s offseason has been deliberation. Lots of smoke, but little fire. Lots of whispers, but few declarations. The Cardinals, along with the Giants, have been among the NL’s most aggressive in their winter expeditions, though each had little to show for it. But after missing out on big fish Giancarlo Stanton, the successful reeling in of Ozuna has put St. Louis back in the conversation.

One common theme in the parallel sagas of Stanton and Shohei Ohtani, the two-way Japanese phenom who signed with the Los Angeles Angels last week, was that they both ended up in the American League. The Cubs and the Dodgers, who are in the mix for just about any elite player that pops up in the transaction marketplace these days, might not have landed either star. But then again, neither did any of their primary contenders in the NL.

The Cubs and Dodgers have combined for five of the last six available slots in the NLCS. Entering the winter meetings, they were favorites to make it seven of eight in 2018. According to the forecasts at FanGraphs.com, Chicago and L.A. rank one-two in projected WAR in the NL. That remains the case even after the moves made this week in central Florida.

In those same forecasts, the Cardinals rank fourth, about 2.5 WAR shy of the third-place Washington Nationals. It has been a quiet week at meetings for Washington but that certainly won’t be the case next year, when Bryce Harper hits free agency (unless the Nationals sign him to an extension — talks which Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, said on Wednesday have at least been acknowledged in his communications with the team).

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But consider the possibilities of what happens if Harper does leave. The likely favorites to land him would be the Cubs and Dodgers, with the AL’s Yankees and Red Sox figuring in, as they always do. There would be other teams emerging to try to make a run — the Phillies stand out as a possibility — but the outcome could be a nightmare scenario for anyone hoping for near-term parity in the National League.

Who would be left to challenge the Cubs and Dodgers? The Cardinals, that’s who — at least if they can parlay the Ozuna acquisition into a leap back into ranks of the elite, a status St. Louis has not enjoyed the past two seasons.

One chief difference between landing Stanton and Ozuna is certainty. The primary caveat to Stanton’s on-field prognosis is health, a concern born from a five-year stretch when his availability was weighed down by a string of unrelated injuries. For Ozuna, the bigger concern is consistency. Last year was really the first in which he put it all together, with 37 homers and 124 RBIs while posting a .924 OPS in a home park that is a drag on hitters. His career-high OPS before that was just .773.

That’s not a bad player by any stretch, but the knock on the Cardinals the past couple of years has been that they had a lineup full of “not bad” players but lacked the focal point that could bring it all together, the kind St. Louis had for years in Albert Pujols. The 2017 version of Ozuna would be exactly that kind of focal point. The pre-2017 version would be only a marginal upgrade over the likes of Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty and Dexter Fowler.

Of course, St. Louis is betting that Ozuna has entered the peak years of his career. Next year will be his age-27 season, always a leading contender to become a hitter’s career peak, and with one more year of arbitration eligibility left after the coming season, Ozuna has the motivation of future riches powering his game.

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Last season, the Cardinals had a team OPS+ of 99, just below average. If Ozuna replicates or improves his 2017 production, St. Louis should challenge the Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals for the status as the league’s best offense. (The 2017 NL leader in team OPS+? The Marlins. That will not be the case in 2018.) But even if the Cardinals tack on, say, 40 runs to their 2017 total thanks to Ozuna’s addition, those four additional wins still leave them more likely to be a wild-card contender than a prime threat to the elite. Assuming the Cardinals keep Ozuna in an outfield corner, he might upgrade the St. Louis defense as well, though that’s not a given since the Redbirds ranked second in the league in defensive runs saved as it was.

More important to St. Louis’ status as contenders is what happens to its pitching. The Cardinals’ team ERA+ (107) was stronger, relative to the league, than the team’s OPS+, but it’s a showing that might be hard to repeat. Lance Lynn is a free agent. Adam Wainwright is 36 and Miles Mikolas, signed from Japan, is a promising but unproven new piece to the rotation. Top prospect Alex Reyes will have to be eased back in after elbow surgery. The rotation needs more depth and bullpen needs more arms, and it’s likely these needs will be addressed in future Hot Stove machinations.

But those are mere tweaks. With baseball’s elite teams in a quickening arms race, and the Cubs and Dodgers in particular in the midst of lengthy contention windows, it sure feels as if the Cardinals need another impact move.

Who might they aim to add? Well, long-rumored Cardinals trade target Josh Donaldson remains a possibility. Another intriguing target would be the Orioles’ Manny Machado, whom St. Louis could use at shortstop or third base.

Does that seem ambitious? Well, consider the other crucial difference between trading for Stanton and trading for Ozuna: money. Mountains and piles of money. Money that, apparently, as of just a few days ago, the Cardinals were willing to spend.

Sure, keeping Ozuna around for the long term might get pricey. Projections show that his 2018 arbitration-fueled salary will sit somewhere in the vicinity of $11 million. He’ll build on that for 2019, then either enter into an extension or hit the opening market.

But the irony of the last week for the Cardinals is that after working hard to acquire Stanton and the bulk of his $295 million contract, St. Louis ended up with his former outfield mate, who provides a good chunk of Stanton’s production, at a fraction of the price. Doing so creates all sorts of possibilities.

Money should still be there to target another high-impact bat, even if it’s for a free-agent-to-be like Donaldson or Machado. That’s because the long-term money — all those millions that would have gone to Stanton — now are free to keep it all together, or to give St. Louis a jump on next year’s lauded class.

As disappointing as the Stanton pursuit turned out to be for St. Louis, it could, in the end, actually set them up to hang with the NL’s big boys. Landing Ozuna helps, but the Cardinals must remain aggressive to make that outcome a reality.

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