The baseball world cringed on Monday night as Giancarlo Stanton limped off the field with a hamstring injury. This was mostly due to the cosmic unfairness in Stanton hurting himself just as his bat finally started to wake up, but there was an element of breathless, horrified anticipation to it as well: What’s Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria going to do now?
Baseball’s great, inverted Jerry Jones did not disappoint. The Marlins have called up Marcell Ozuna from Double-A to fill in for Stanton in right field. Ozuna is an actual prospect — the fifth-best in the Marlins system going into the season, according to Baseball America. He has All-Star potential and a boatload of tools (the BA scouting report at one point describes him as “oozing” them, which can’t be healthy), one of which is plus-plus power. He’s a very good young player and could develop into a fantastic outfielder for the Miami Marlins… were he allowed to develop properly. You see, Marcell Ozuna has a bit of a problem, and it’s the same problem a lot of young, toolsy players who can hit the ball forever against poor or untested competition have: He’s a free swinger, and he strikes out a lot.
Ozuna’s technically a Double-A player, yes, but he has spent all of a couple weeks there to open the season. His previous four years in the Marlins system had him in Rookie ball, short season A and full season A ball, and in those seasons Marcell Ozuna struck out 454 times in 1,727 AB. In High-A Jupiter last year, Ozuna struck out 116 times in 486 AB, and the year before that in Low A, 121 times in 491 AB. That’s a strikeout/PA rate around 22-23% when you factor in his walks, almost once out of every four times he steps up to the plate, and that would be concerning but acceptable for a major league power hitter, except: Ozuna is facing A-ball pitchers while he’s doing this. It’s Double-A, which is where he has played all of 10 games (9 strikeouts), where Ozuna will start seeing pitchers with advanced approaches and repertoires, and where a minor league prospect’s career is either made or broken.
Ozuna, coming off a broken hand and having had all of two weeks to see pitchers that can throw their breaking pitches consistently for strikes, is being asked to come up and face the most advanced pitchers in the world. Furthermore, even if he is ready, this starts his service time clock during a lost season and guarantees that he’ll get more expensive sooner rather than later, which is important given the miserly state of Miami ownership. Why are the Marlins doing this?
The theory I like the most, beyond the usual dose of “Jeffrey Loria is baseball’s most dangerous chicken without a head,” is that Marcell Ozuna is coming up for the same reason Jose Fernandez is already in the major leagues: the Marlins don’t particularly care about retaining him or having him as a contributor on the Next Good Miami team, which let’s be honest, right now looks like it’ll arrive a few seasons past Armageddon. They care about turning their top guys into tradable commodities as soon as possible, and Jose Fernandez, 22-Year-Old Major League Ace with a year of control left before arbitration, has a much better ring to it than Jose Fernandez, 22-Year-Old Top Pitching Prospect. Fernandez, at least, was optimistically ready to slot into the MLB rotation at the end of this year or early next year; the Marlins just burned a year of control in order to give him more time at the big league level in a lost season. I suspect they’re doing something similar with Ozuna and seeing if they can turn him into a ready-now trade commodity a year or so down the line… while trying to get what’s left of the Miami fanbase excited to see the young talent in the Marlins system.
That would be the evil beauty of this plan: The short-term goal is to get fans into the stadium to see excited young talent light up a team composed of tweeners and old, broken veterans, but the long-term goal is to ship that talent out of town as soon as possible and leave the fans in their Jose Fernandez and Marcell Ozuna jerseys right back where they started. Is this what the Marlins are up to? It almost has to be. It’s pure Loria.