Earlier this week, the MLBPA rejected MLB's latest attempt to secure an expanded postseason field in 2021. Soon thereafter MLB announced it will adhere to the collective bargaining agreement, meaning spring training and the regular season will begin on time, and we'll have a full 162-game season. A full 162-game season as long as the pandemic cooperates, of course.
It also means there will not be a universal DH in 2021. MLB offered the universal DH in exchange for an expanded postseason, a trade that is nowhere near fair to the MLBPA, so we'll go back to pitchers hitting in 2021. An 11th-hour deal, similar to last year's expanded postseason agreement, is always possible, though I wouldn't hold my breath this time around.
The lack of a universal DH provides clarity for the free-agent market and it's probably not a coincidence Nelson Cruz, the offseason's most prominent free-agent DH, re-signed with the Twins not long after MLB's announcement. He could no longer explore signing with a National League team (or even just use NL teams as leverage), so he returned to Minnesota.
Marcell Ozuna, who was 13 batting average points away from winning the NL Triple Crown last year, remains unsigned, and like Cruz, his best position is DH. He's a defensive liability in the outfield but my goodness can the man hit. Ozuna put up a .338/.431/.636 batting line with 18 home runs en route to a sixth-place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2020.
The underlying numbers on Ozuna, our No. 6 ranked free agent, are among the best in the game. Look where he ranked in various measures of contact quality during the abbreviated 60-game regular season:
Average exit velocity: 93.0 mph (top 4% of MLB)
Hard-hit rate: 54.4% (top 3% of MLB)
Barrel rate: 15.4% (top 6% of MLB)
Expected batting average: .315 (top 3% of MLB)
Expected slugging percentage: .638 (top 2% of MLB)
Ozuna is a certifiable beast, and he turned only 30 years old in November, so he is right smack in the prime of his career. He is a difference-making hitter and could swing a division or postseason race. And yet, Ozuna remains unemployed less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, mostly because he's a poor defender.
At some point soon a smart team is going to sign Ozuna and be happy they did. They may have to live with his poor defense, but he'll win more games with his bat than he loses with his glove. Now that we know there will not be a universal DH in 2021, here's a look at Ozuna's market two weeks before spring training opens.
AL teams that could use a DH
There aren't many American League teams that absolutely need a DH right now. Contenders like the Twins (Cruz), Athletics (Khris Davis), Astros (Yordan Alvarez), and Yankees (Giancarlo Stanton) are set at the position. So are clubs like the Angels (Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols), Royals (Jorge Soler), and Tigers (Miguel Cabrera). Here are the American League clubs that can still squeeze Ozuna into their lineup.
Boston Red Sox: It wouldn't be neat but it is doable. The Red Sox could use Ozuna and J.D. Martinez in a left field/DH timeshare with Andrew Benintendi sliding over to center field. That would mean Alex Verdugo stays in right, and free-agent pickup Hunter Renfroe is relegated to a bench or platoon role, which might not be the worst thing in the world. Unlikely, but if the Red Sox really wanted to do it, they could make it work.
Chicago White Sox: An obvious fit for the team and the player. The White Sox currently have Eloy Jimenez penciled in at DH with Adam Engel in left field.