There’s a better-than-average chance that in 2021, the Cardinals will have to figure out what to do with a 35-year-old Dexter Fowler. He’ll be making $16.5 million, which should still be enough to affect a payroll. That’s free agency for you. You pay for the good stuff, and when it’s over, you grit your teeth through the bad stuff. Free agent contracts are like the plot of It Follows, except it’s well-played baseball that’s the sweaty fun followed by unspeakable terror. Well-played baseball is the sweaty fun with repercussions, not, well, you know.
The Cardinals don’t care. They’re competitive now, and they have no idea what they’ll look like in 2021. The odds are they’ll be above .500 because they always are, but we said the same thing about the Braves once, too. And with the cold realities of baseball lurking around every corner for every team, they’re right to respect their win-now window. Fowler makes them a better team next season, and he probably makes them a better team the season after that. He might age like Angel Pagan, or he might age like Robin Yount. In the meantime, the Cardinals are better.
What’s stunning about the deal is it went to an outfielder. Not just an outfielder, but an outfielder who is good at a lot of things without being great at anything. The Cardinals usually have a storage locker filled with those guys, and now we’re stuck trying to think about what it means that they had to pay market price for one.
Let’s reminisce about the players the Cardinals have paid for in the past. Matt Holliday was an outfielder, sure, but he was a clear All-Star, one of the better hitters in the game. Jhonny Peralta was a shortstop, a position the Cardinals weren’t having a ton of luck with following Edgar Renteria’s departure. Kyle Lohse was a starting pitcher, and even teams like the Cardinals that develop their own pitchers consistently can use a rotation boost or two. That’s one special outfielder, and two players filling specific needs the team didn’t want to count on internally.
Fowler is a quality outfielder. If you think he’s as good as he was for the Cubs last year, he’s possibly an All-Star outfielder. Still, when you think about a 30-year-old having the best OPS+, best defensive stats, and best OBP (despite six years in Coors Field) of his career, it’s probably a good idea to look at the preceding seasons in which Fowler was good, not great.
The Cardinals aren’t paying for good-not-great, but they won’t be disappointed with good, I’m assuming. The curious part is that they’ve usually dug productive outfielders up like truffles in the past.
We’ll start with 10 seasons ago, just to pick an arbitrary date. That was when So Taguchi was 37 and posting a .350 on-base percentage, which is so Cardinals. And Taguchi. It was the season after he hit two homers in four plate appearances to help the Cardinals to the World Series.
That was the season after Chris Duncan was grown in a petri dish from fingernail clippings they took from the pitching coach when he was sleeping. The younger Duncan banged out a .952 OPS out of nowhere. In 2007, he was still productive, and he made a nice complement to Taguchi.
In 2008, Ryan Ludwick was an All-Star who won the Silver Slugger award and finished with MVP votes. Before joining the Cardinals, he was a 26-year-old who couldn’t slug his way out of Triple-A for the Tigers, whom he joined as a minor-league free agent. He was joined that season by a freaking pitcher who broke, left the team, and traveled through the sulphur canyons of Hades with nothing but a lantern and a spectral guide, only to re-emerge as a power-hitting outfielder. You think I’m kidding about the “sticks and sand” stuff until you remember Rick Ankiel.
In 2009, most of the above outfielders were still around, and their struggles were papered over by Holliday’s MVP-quality production. In 2010, the Cardinals introduced the world to Jon Jay, who had barely made their top-10 prospect list two years before. He stuck around for years, giving them roughly what they’re expecting from Fowler now.
Colby Rasmus fits somewhere around here, too. He almost doesn’t count because he was a highly regarded prospect, the weirdo, but he still counts a little.
It’s not just the internal solutions that work out, either. In 2011, they bought a heavily used Lance Berkman at an estate sale and turned him into the Comeback Player of the Year.
In 2012, they took advantage of a soft market and signed a still-productive Carlos Beltran to be the Hall of Fame-quality hitter he always was. Beltran and Holliday kept Allen Craig out of the outfield for a while, but he’s worth a mention as a typical sticks-and-sand hitter for the Cardinals.
In recent years, the Cardinals have found success with Randal Grichuk, who was previously known as the guy drafted before Mike Trout, and Stephen Piscotty, a top prospect like Rasmus who almost doesn’t count, except he was supposedly burdened with the Stanford Swing. The Cardinals get bonus points for helping him transcend those limitations.
Even Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker gave the Cardinals something out of nowhere over the last two seasons. They have a way, people. This team has a way of getting value where other teams can’t.
This history lesson isn’t being presented to argue against the Fowler move. The signing was a lot of money, more than a lot of baseball pundits expected, but again, the Cardinals should be better next season. That’s all they care about.
No, the history is just a backdrop for a thesis of “Dexter Fowler is a very un-Cardinals kind of free agent.” Because he is. When the Cardinals wanted an outfielder in the past, they would usually create one, unless they would buy one at a substantial discount. Holliday was the exception over the last decade, but he was an exceptional player.
The run had to end eventually, and the Cardinals figured that Fowler was just the right player to pounce on. The twist here is that the organization is mediocre with post-Holliday free agents, at best.
The St. Louis Cardinals, under John Mozeliak, simply do not use the free agent market as a way to acquire top-tier talent. The upside of that is that the team is never weighed down the the kind of albatross contracts that so many clubs carry around. The downside is that we fans spend every Hot Stove season feeling generally disappointed and wondering what could have been.
That’s from Viva El Birdos, and considering Fowler’s cost in draft-pick compensation and salary, he eventually might be that albatross, except with a lower ceiling than a team would normally prefer from its top-tier talent. And he plays a spot the team can usually figure out with creativity and derring-do instead of money. It’s a very odd signing on a few levels.
And yet if Fowler hits .300/.390/.470 next season and picks up MVP votes, who among us will be surprised? Not anyone who’s watched the Cardinals over the last couple decades. They probably know what they’re doing. This is just an unusual way for them to go about their business.