COMMENTARY | Marcell Ozuna has the sort of name that growls "imposing power hitter."
The Dominican-born outfielder cuts an imposing figure as he sets into the right side of the plate. During his short stint with the Miami Marlins, No. 48 has laced pitches into white streaks that bounce off walls before they are finished rising. Ozuna, 22, has made a strong case as a name to track throughout the summer as he acts as a right-field replacement for the injured Giancarlo Stanton.
When Miami's lone slugger, Stanton, left late in an extra-innings home win against the New York Mets on April 29, Ozuna was promoted from Double-A Jacksonville to fill the power gap in the heart of the order. Stanton's injury was severe enough that he will need at least a month to recover, giving the young rookie ample opportunity to prove his value at the highest level.
After Sunday's afternoon game against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies, Ozuna has compiled 23 at-bats of excellence. Ozuna is batting .478 in his first six games, with four RBIs, four doubles, one home run, and only three strikeouts.
As of May 5, Marcell Ozuna could be found on only 6 percent of Yahoo! fantasy baseball rosters. Any teams that have been starving for offense may want to consider taking a flyer on the slugger. While it's too early to tell how long he'll be with the big-league club, Ozuna is the perfect candidate to spell those who spent a high pick on Stanton.
There are other names in the Marlins' system that are more known than Ozuna. The highest profile of them is starting pitcher Jose Fernandez, who made the rotation out of the gate in April. Fernandez entered the season ranked as a top 10 prospect on lists from MLB.com (seventh), Baseball America (15th), and Baseball Prospectus (sixth). Fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also placed in the top 25 on those same lists.
So where is Ozuna in these annual lists of high-ceiling talent? Only Baseball America rated Marcell as a top 100 talent (75th). MLB.com cites his proven power numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (High-A level) but rated him as the organization's sixth-best prospect. Baseball Prospectus left Ozuna off its annual list. Still, it cites his comparables as Tony Conigliaro, Jay Bruce, and former Marlins player Miguel Cabrera. The omission may have been due to average on-base skills and above-average strikeout totals.
According to Baseball-Reference, Ozuna carries a 26-percent strikeout rate throughout his minor-league career. Over the past three seasons, those minor-league K-rates have progressed in the right direction. As a major leaguer, he's been able to cut down on that rate by a large margin, but a larger sample size will be needed to show how long his plate discipline lasts.
Despite the lower rankings of Ozuna, prospect watchers show definite respect for his abilities. Baseball Prospectus says in its 2013 guide that he "is a prototypical right fielder, with light-tower power and a plus arm." Few things get a fan's attention like "light-tower power," but the chance to see a player shoot lasers out of right field comes close.
Before poor play or injuries sidetracked them, several rookies were generating hype after the conclusion of spring training (and following a season in which ultra-talents Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels won Rookie of the Year honors in their respective leagues).
Adam Eaton of the Arizona Diamondbacks has spent the entire season healing from an elbow injury. Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox had perhaps the best hitting spring in all of baseball. Then he batted .097 with one extra-base hit before being sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket. Starting pitcher Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves and infielder Jedd Gyorko of the San Diego Padres have been erratic with some bright flashes of their potential.
Of all the rookies in this year's class, only starting pitcher Shelby Miller of the St. Louis Cardinals has shown brilliance while being given every opportunity to perform on a regular basis. What makes Ozuna's sudden success so interesting is that he was a relative unknown before Giancarlo Stanton's injury.
In Stanton, Ozuna has major cleats to fill. Stanton is the most visible player on the roster and is the best raw power threat in the game. Stanton has also expressed aggravation with the team in the recent past and has become a persistent member of the annual trade rumor mill. Extending Stanton in right field while cultivating Ozuna and Yelich gives Miami a strong chance at mending ties with an indifferent fan base.
Miami's left fielder spot is now occupied by 35-year-old Juan Pierre (on a $1.6 million, one-year contract). The spot could be Ozuna's to take when Stanton is ready to return. Ozuna has little experience at the left-field position and a slight measure more at center. With Miami's second-best hitter, center fielder Justin Ruggiano, now in his early-30s, the table is set for minor-leaguer Christian Yelich to claim his spot in what could be a more formidable outfield in the future.
Although it's been a year since the Marlins gala event opening last season, truer glimmers of hope are poking through the cloud wall on the horizon. As a fan, there are few things in baseball more exciting than the feeling of discovery when a prospect shocks you with his ability and then sticks around to keep lighting the scoreboard.
As Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com observed at the start of spring, Loria stated during his press conference that it "would be nice if there was some positive." One month into the season, Ozuna is the answer.
S.A. Bartow covers baseball as a Yahoo! contributor based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter @sabartow.
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