Free Agent Faceoff: Marcell Ozuna vs. Nelson Cruz
Image courtesy of © Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports (Marcell Ozuna) and © Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports (Nelson Cruz) -- Illustration by Adriana Taylor“Free Agent Faceoff” will be a multi-part series in which I will pit two free agent targets against one another, examining their candidacy as a free agent for the Minnesota Twins. Ultimately I will decide the winner of the faceoff as the better fit for the Twins.
The first faceoff, two designated hitters: Marcell Ozuna vs. Nelson Cruz
Contract Estimate: 4 years/$72M
The Case For:
Marcell Ozuna finished 6th in MVP voting in 2020 after leading the National League in both home runs and RBI and posting a massive 1.067 OPS in 60 games. Ozuna’s numbers were no fluke, either, as the free agent finished in the mid-90s percentile for both exit velocity and barrel %. Ozuna possesses elite power and contact skills and is also extremely smart at the plate, posting a BB% of 14.2 in 2020, good enough for the top-12% of baseball.
Further, Ozuna will only just be entering into his age-30 season in the Majors in 2021. He is right in the middle of his prime, and figures to have many seasons of crushing baseballs ahead of him over the next half-decade.
In addition to being a designated hitter, Ozuna also possesses the ability to play the outfield. Since entering the league in 2013 Ozuna has over 8,000 innings of experience in the outfield, playing all three outfield positions. Ozuna hasn’t been super effective in the field, but the flexibility that he provides by being able to chip in on defense makes him extremely valuable.
The Case Against:
While Ozuna undoubtedly put up elite numbers in 2020, his career has been wildly inconsistent over the years. Since entering the league full-time in 2014, Ozuna has posted more seasons in his career with an OPS under .775 (4) than over .775 (3). If the Minnesota Twins were to sign the former Atlanta Brave this offseason, they would be acquiring him at his absolute highest value, paying top dollar after a great performance for 60 games. The small sample size could easily be more of an outlier for Ozuna’s career, where his realistic production expectation might be closer to the .816 OPS that he had averaged for the four seasons prior to his 2020 breakout.
Because the Minnesota Twins would be acquiring Ozuna at his peak value, the contract to sign him would need to be quite generous, likely requiring 4 years and somewhere in the range of $72M, handicapping the Twins payroll for years to come and making additional moves harder to come by. Further, with Ozuna’s spot as the team’s designated hitter on the payroll for the next four years, the Twins could find themselves in a tough spot should players like Miguel Sanó or Josh Donaldson decline enough in the field to necessitate becoming designated hitters themselves.
Contract Estimate: 1 year/$16M
The Case For:
Nelson Cruz requires little introduction for Minnesota Twins fans. In two seasons with the Twins, Cruz has posted a combined OPS of 1.020, leading the team in home runs in both seasons. Off the field, Cruz has been a leader in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse and become a fan favorite for those in Twins Territory.
While it’s natural to be fearful of Nelson Cruz’s production dropping off in his age-41 season, the same could have been said for Cruz going into his age-39 and 40 seasons, when he defied historical precedent and provided the Twins monstrous numbers at the plate. Cruz has made it clear year after year, that past age-related production precedent does not apply to him.
Signing Nelson Cruz would allow the Minnesota Twins a tremendous amount of flexibility. First, signing Cruz would allow the Twins to fill their designated hitter spot without tying up their future payroll, as Nelson’s age will likely only require a 1-year contract, or potentially a second year that would kick in if certain incentives are met in the first year. In addition to the financial flexibility, the shortened Cruz contract would also provide the Twins with roster flexibility. Given the injury history of Miguel Sanó and Josh Donaldson, the Twins could certainly find themselves in a spot over the next two seasons where they might need to shift Sanó or Donaldson to the designated hitter position, and signing Cruz this offseason wouldn’t inhibit them from being able to do so.
The Case Against:
Sure, Nelson Cruz has defied all past precedent when it comes to age-related production, but at the same time ... he’s going to be 41 years old next season! There is certainly an imminent drop off coming for Cruz, and that drop off could certainly be coming next season. Teams constantly make the mistake of moving on from their aging stars a year too late rather than a year too early, and there is a very real chance that the Twins could be moving on from Cruz a year too late, should they decide to bring him back in 2021.
Down the stretch of the 2020 season, Nelson Cruz began to suffer from knee soreness, and his production took a dip as a result. After posting months with an OPS greater than 1.000 in both July and August, Cruz saw his OPS dip down to a more modest .844 OPS in September and October, perhaps hinting at a larger-scale production drop off in 2021.
Twins Twitter’s Take
Looking at the cases for both designated hitter free agents, Nelson Cruz makes much more sense as a target for this Minnesota Twins ball club. While the Twins have shown the willingness to open up their pocketbooks and spend money under this front office regime, this club is still a middle-market team that can only afford so many high-dollar contracts on their books. Signing Ozuna, a designated hitter, to a high-dollar deal for four years would simply hamper the Twins books too much and hamper them on such a replaceable position like designated hitter. Additionally, the Twins have multiple players in the pipeline who could fill the designated hitter position down the line, whether it is for an aging player declining in the field like Sanó or Donaldson, or a current prospect needing a roster spot like Brent Rooker or Aaron Sabato, the Twins simply can’t afford to tie up a roster spot on a designated hitter for the next four seasons.
In Nelson Cruz, there is definite risk with his age and likely dip in health and production, but his upside on this Twins team has been seen in each of the past two seasons on and off the field. The likely commitment of just one season greatly minimizes Minnesota’s risk and leaves the Twins with clear books to go out and sign players in future seasons while this contending window is still wide open.
Do you think the Minnesota Twins should go after Nelson Cruz or Marcell Ozuna at their likely price points? Leave a comment below and start the conversation!
Be sure to check back to Twins Daily throughout this week for more editions of “Free Agent Faceoff”!
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email
— Follow Matthew Taylor on Twitter here
- mikelink45 and dbminn like this