ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- After missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the Cardinals again found themselves searching for answers this winter.
They lost a lot of close games. Their offense couldn’t bail out their pitching. Their lineup lacked teeth. Something needed to be done if St. Louis was going to reassert their postseason permanence.
Marcell Ozuna was their answer.
The Cardinals traded four prospects (including Magneuris Sierra and Sandy Alcantara) to the Marlins to get him, and immediately liked the loOK of him in red.
“Obviously, Ozuna changed the look of team. Dramatically,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said.
37 homers, 124 RBIs and a .924 OPS. Gold Glove defense in left field to go with his Silver Slugger award. 27 years old and coming off the best season of his career.
Ozuna was the big-name get Cardinal fans had been clamoring for.
As an excited Cardinal Nation reacted to the news, Ozuna’s new teammates were echoing the cheers.
“I was pretty excited. I kind of jumped up and down when I first heard the news,” Carlos Martinez said through a translator. Martinez and Yadier Molina have been friends with Ozuna for some time, and often joked about convincing the front office to make a move to acquire him.
Now that they did, Ozuna’s friends aren’t the only ones happy.
“I love having that signing. When I was looking back at our game plan with the Marlins last year, we patterned our game around Ozuna,” Adam Wainwright said. “He’s just improved so much over the past two years, offensively it’s incredible. Incredibly big, strong guy. Seems like a great dude in the clubhouse. But talent-wise – one of the best hitters in the National League. One of the toughest outs in the National League, for sure.”
So when Ozuna, nicknamed The Big Bear, walked into the Winter Warm-Up barrel-chested and beaming, it was hard not to feel the optimism. Once he spoke, it was clear he was as happy to be here as they were to have him.
“I thank God for bringing me here,” he said. “The first thing I heard was they were trying to trade me to Oakland….” he paused to scrunch his face up in disapproval. “I said, ‘God please, leave me over here (in Miami).’ Then I heard they traded me to the Cardinals and I said, ‘OK thanks.’”
As the media room erupted into laughter, it was easy to see why Ozuna’s new teammates are excited to play with him. He has a joy-loving reputation, and seems comfortable even surrounded by strangers on a cold January evening and the weight of a fan base’s expectations on his shoulders.
“There’s no pressure,” Ozuna said with an easy grin. “Just play the game, enjoy the game and have fun. If you have fun, and your family is ok, you’re going to play well,”
His easygoing demeanor makes transitioning teams seem like a breeze. He already has a group chat with his fellow St. Louis outfielders and a few other players like Martinez, Molina and Kolten Wong. No pomp and circumstance, no big introduction, just some texts between guys now fighting for the same side.
“He’s gonna be a great teammate. He’s gonna bring a lot to the team and we’re excited
because the team needed this,” Martinez said. “All the players do well together and he’s gonna fit right in with everybody else.”
That’s not to say the Cardinals haven’t also been thrilled with Ozuna’s incoming skill set. His 37 homers last year would have led the team by 12. His 124 RBIs would put him 42 ahead of last year’s team leader, Yadier Molina with 82. Only Tommy Pham beat him in OPS, and Matt Carpenter managed one more double (31) than Ozuna did.
He is certainly the muscle the skeletal lineup was missing.
“I think his stats speak for themselves. Bringing that bat into this lineup- oh, it’s exciting man,” Wong said. “Mike is going to have a tough decision finding out how to put this lineup together.”
There won’t be any questions about how he fits in the outfield. The two-time All Star is fresh off a Gold Glove and was 11 runs better than the average left fielder in 2017. He also had 10 assists with his arm, which was tied for third among his peers.
Oh, and he led all left fielders with 153 games played.
“I was pumped,” Tommy Pham said about learning Ozuna had been acquired. “Because you know, he killed us. He killed us this past season. I remember he hit all of our pitchers and he used the whole field. From right field down to the left field line. You see he won a Gold Glove so he’s a guy that can impact the game not only offensively but defensively.”
Indeed, the Cardinals suffered greatly at the hands of Big Bear. In seven games against the Birds, Ozuna hit .357 with an eye-popping 1.188 OPS. He had three bombs and drove in 11 runs in those games.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, or in this case, trade for ‘em.
Despite Ozuna no longer being able to feast on Cardinal pitching, he’ll happily don the Birds on the Bat if it means escaping the Marlins, currently being strip-mined into oblivion, and joining a team still in the fight.
“I’m happy to play with them,” he said. “Now I play for a reason.”