Randy Arozarena

Tampa Bay Rays Randy Arozarena celebrates his two run home run during the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 4 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

(KMOV.com) — Remember Randy Arozarena? 

The young Cuban-born outfielder currently taking the MLB Postseason by storm for the Rays was, of course, a member of the Cardinals last season. Arozarena’s remarkable performance this October has placed the January trade that sent him to Tampa Bay under increased scrutiny these nine months later.

Through a dozen postseason games this month, Arozarena has compiled a Babe Ruthian batting line of .417/.462/.896. Arozarena’s six home runs and 10 total extra-base hits during the playoffs have the Rays one win away from a trip to the World Series; entering Friday, Tampa Bay leads the ALCS over Houston 3-2.

Arozarena had his debut season with the Rays impacted by a stint on the COVID-related IL. After joining the club in the final days of August, he went on to post seven home runs with a .281/.382/.641 batting line and a 1.022 OPS in 76 regular-season plate appearances. Obviously, his torrid hitting has continued into the postseason.

From a Cardinals perspective, watching Arozarena as the breakout star of the postseason has been like some sort of sick joke. Couple his performance with that of Marcell Ozuna for the NLCS-leading Braves—the departed free agent walloped two home runs for Atlanta in a Game 4 win Thursday night—and it’s easy to see why the angst flows freely for Cardinals fans.

This October’s successes for the two sluggers raises the question: Just how detrimental were the decisions the Cardinals have made with regard to their outfield since January 1?

With a National League-leading 18 home runs and an OPS of 1.067 this season, Ozuna had a monster year for Atlanta. Now he’s raking in the postseason for the Braves as they eye a trip to the World Series. That has understandably caused some to lament the fact that the Cardinals didn’t even pursue the type of one-year deal for which the Braves landed the slugging outfielder.

The renaissance campaign for Ozuna in Atlanta, though, was predictable enough. He’s finally healthy following an arm injury that had plagued him since before the Cardinals first acquired him, and he got a fresh start in a hitter-friendly environment compared to the pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium (the numbers bore that out, too—his OPS in home games this season was 1.106).

That the Cardinals didn’t bring Ozuna back didn’t bother me in January—when I predicted that his upcoming 2020 season with Atlanta would be a massive one—and it doesn’t bother me now. Though there were Cardinals supporters who hated that the team let Ozuna walk when it happened, the majority of voters in a January Twitter poll with more than 3,000 responses said they were actually glad the Cardinals didn’t offer him the same deal he accepted with the Braves.

So, let’s be wary of recency bias—with the important caveat that a Twitter poll is far from a perfect measure of the pulse of the fan base, it seems that a decent portion of Cardinals fans didn’t mind the team's inaction on Ozuna. And as I’ve said before: I don’t think Ozuna would have done in St. Louis in 2020 what he’s done in Atlanta. It’s hardly an analytically-sound argument, but it’s a viewpoint by which I’ve stood since the winter. His time in St. Louis grew stale, and both sides needed a fresh start. It certainly worked out for Ozuna, who enters this winter with a robust free-agent resume in tow.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the players on which they placed their wagers in Ozuna’s stead simply haven’t panned out.

While it should be considered that they played two fewer games than the rest of the field and grappled with a COVID-19 outbreak fathomed by only one other club, the Cardinals ranked dead-last in MLB with just 51 home runs this season. The team’s rate of home runs per game was also last, by a fair margin.

According to Baseball Reference, the league average for OPS across MLB in 2020 was .740. The Cardinals had just three players check in above that threshold: Paul Goldschmidt, Brad Miller and Harrison Bader.

Speaking specifically of the team’s production from its outfield—positions played by both Arozarena and Ozuna—the Cardinals were counting on a bounce-back from Bader and breakout efforts from less proven internal options like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and to some extent, Dylan Carlson. 

While Bader endured inconsistencies at the plate, he bounced back, nevertheless. Bader finished the year with a .779 OPS—an improvement of nearly 100 points compared his .680 OPS in 2019. His .779 mark this season ranked third-best on the team; I understand the erratic nature of his offensive production was frustrating, but qualms about the 2020 Cardinals lineup should not rest on Bader’s shoulders. Factor in his contributions defensively, and the numbers dictate that Bader did his part—and then some—in 2020.

O’Neill, Thomas and Carlson, on the other hand, didn’t perform as the Cardinals front office had hoped when it constructed the roster over the winter. In 316 combined plate appearances for St. Louis this season, the outfield trio compiled a collective .175/.250/.347 batting line for a combined OPS of .597. While Carlson came on strong toward the end, the collective numbers are the collective numbers. I’m not sure how to articulate how bad a .597 OPS is. I’m not sure I really need to try—you’re smart, you get it.

Letting Ozuna walk, at the very least, is a bad look in retrospect for the Cardinals in light of their porous offense this season—though St. Louis did recoup a draft pick as a result of his signing with Atlanta. The decision with the true capacity to be deemed a devastating whiff in the long-run, though, is trading Arozarena before ever giving him a legitimate opportunity to show what he could do.

At the time, the Cardinals had this bundle of prospects and pseudo-prospects within their outfield matrix. We’ve covered O’Neill, Thomas and Carlson. Justin Williams, too, is still in the Cardinals organization after coming over, ironically, in the Tommy Pham trade with Tampa. As of January 1, Arozarena was also part of that group.

Last summer, he had been tearing the cover off the ball in the minors, putting together a .344/.431/.571 (1.003 OPS) between Class-AA Springfield and Class-AAA Memphis. The Cardinals finally called up Arozarena in August, but throughout a week-long period of Mike Shildt lineups that baffles me to this day, Randy’s name was scarcely seen. I realize we’re digging into box score minutiae, here, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

After a two-hit effort in his first-career MLB start on August 14, Arozarena was in the lineup the next night, and went 0-for-3 before he was double-switched out of the game following his third at-bat. On August 16, he received a pinch-hit appearance. From there, Arozarena didn’t leave the bench until he was optioned back to Memphis on August 20.

Playing opportunity was so scarce for the Pacific Coast League’s best hitter that week that Yairo Munoz—who was released by the Cardinals in spring training—drew an outfield start over Arozarena on August 18. Munoz’s OPS entering that night was .677. After an 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, it fell to .660.

Back with the Cardinals a couple weeks later as a September call-up, Arozarena spent the entire month with the team but received just 15 plate appearances in 16 games. He drew only two starts for the month. In those two starts, he went 2-for-6 with two walks and a home run. His small-sample stat line for the Cardinals in 23 plate appearances last season: .300/.391./.500 for an .891 OPS.

So while we knew the Cardinals wanted to reorganize and trade from their surplus of young outfielders over the winter, it’s fair to ask what exactly they saw from Arozarena that determined he was the one that had to go. Given the Rays’ penchant for scouting and discovering the upside in talented players before they’ve had a real chance to shine, it’s probable Tampa Bay locked in on Arozarena specifically—not Thomas or Bader or Williams—in the trade talks between the two teams back in January. They had an inkling of the player they were getting. 

Can we say the same about the other side? Did the Cardinals know the kind of player they were relinquishing in the deal? Or did they count Arozarena as simply another toolsy twenty-something outfielder on a 40-man roster full of them? Left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore may well prove to be a prize for St. Louis down the road, but we’ve never seen the Cardinals have any trouble with scouting and acquiring talented pitchers. 

Regardless of the internal machinations of the trade that sent the hottest baseball player in the world (this side of Marcell Ozuna, anyway) to Tampa Bay, the Cardinals now find themselves in a precarious position as a result.

They sit here in mid-October facing another off-season in which improving the offense is the stated intent. They do so while the cost-controlled outfielder who might have single-handedly accomplished that goal tries to lead his new team to a championship—perhaps against the team led by the free-agent slugging outfielder the Cardinals decided they didn’t want.

If the Cardinals can make effective roster decisions this time around—determining the proper level of reaction to all that took place in 2020, and the subsequent action that must accompany it—then their moves related to Arozarena and Ozuna don’t have to haunt them for long.

But right now, smack dab in the midst of a postseason headlined by their thriving former players? As the kids would say, you hate to see it.

Copyright 2020 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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