ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- After much wailing and gnashing of keys from Cardinal Nation, the team officially announced the signing of Dexter Fowler at a press conference Friday morning.
Fowler’s signing is the sort of big-impact move many clamored for as the Cardinals entered the offseason in the wake of an underwhelming 2016 season and a Chicago Cubs championship.
The team needed to get better, and markedly so, if they hoped to close the 17-win gap separating them from Chicago in 2017. There is more to accomplish before the team is ready to challenge Chicago, not all of which might be accomplished this offseason, but Fowler acts as proof of life for a front office demanding faith in the process.
Fowler is a gifted top-of-the-order hitter with a .366 career OBP and an OPS approaching .800. The last two seasons have been the best of his career, and 2016’s campaign not only came with a ring, but his first All-Star selection and a WAR of 4.7.
He solves a lineup problem for St. Louis, allowing them to install a speedy switch-hitting leadoff man and move Matt Carpenter to a more RBI-centric spot in the order. His speed will help a team that was abysmal on the bases last season, though he’s not a prolific base stealer. His career high was 27 in a season, achieved in 2009. He’s stolen 33 bases in the last two seasons combined, getting caught 11 times. His primary skill as a runner is intelligence. His BsR (a comprehensive look at how effective a runner is) is 6.2 runs above average, eight-best in baseball.
His defense is considered an upgrade over both Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham, the in-house candidates for the center field. Both Pham and Grichuk have the speed to man the position, but their play is highly volatile; often combining eye-popping plays with disastrously circuitous routes in the same game.
Fowler is more stable in the position and a recent 15-foot adjustment in positioning yielded the best two years of his career in the field.
He also brings much-needed levity to a clubhouse that often felt anemic last season. The Cardinals’ scuffling 2016 campaign produced a palpable tension that Fowler’s affability could alleviate.
The primary concern is age. Fowler will be 31 when the 2017 season begins, and historically players in physically demanding positions, say center field, begin to demonstrably decline once they get north of 30.
Fowler has gotten better each of the last two years defensively, which would seem to rebut that concern, but he’s also played in a smaller stadium with better help. From 2008-2014, Fowler rated as a below-average fielder in Defensive Runs Saved, hitting a career-low -20 with Houston at the end of that stretch. His best season was 2016, the second year in Wrigley and with a perennial Gold Glove winner to his left.
This isn’t to say Fowler is secretly a liability in the field, but him continuing his rate of defensive improvement is unlikely.
Fowler’s addition makes the team better, and that a team with cash to burn didn’t balk at the acquisition cost is an encouraging sign. Between this deal and the signing of Brett Cecil, the team committed more than $100 million to external help and there is likely more to come. But the Winter Meetings threw into sharp relief a problem that has for the last few seasons been lurking in the shadows.
The Cardinals are out of marquis assets at the moment.
The impactful trades this offseason have required massive talent outlays in exchange for top MLB talent. Take the White Sox’s transaction log, for example. They sent Adam Eaton (a quality outfielder but by no means a franchise-defining player) east, and received three prospects from the Nationals, two of whom (Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito) are considered among the top 40 in baseball.
Chris Sale was shipped to Boston in return for perhaps the best prospect in the game in Yoan Moncada, plus three more pieces including a pitcher who hit 105 MPH last year.
Even last year, when the Yankees sent Aroldis Chapman to Chicago, they got four pieces in return, including blue-chip shortstop Gleyber Torres and a former first round draft pick.
The Cubs, Nats and Red Sox were able to head hunt because they had the chips to play. The Cardinals don’t.
Mozeliak said as much when he described the gap between Alex Reyes, the team’s highest-value name, and the rest of the prospects in the St. Louis system. There just isn’t enough in the pipeline to swing a blockbuster trade. Every top-talent piece from the team’s vaunted farm a few years ago has either arrived (Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk, Matt Adams, Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver), or has been traded already (Charlie Tilson, Kyle Barraclough, Tyrell Jenkins). Some, like Wong and Adams, haven’t played well or frequently enough to realize their value. Some, like Wacha, have been injured. No one is quite sure what to make of Marco Gonzales.
Among the various feeder teams, there is excitement over a few names. Sandy Alcantara, for one. Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader and Carson Kelly are some others. None of those players are ready for every day MLB action, and none carry enough weight to move the needle in a major trade. There’s isn’t a deal to be made that doesn’t result in a net loss. Not in this climate, anyway.
The best piece the Cardinals have in this market is their wallet.
Fowler addresses two prominent ailments with the current roster. His signing is no doubt a positive and should assuage fears of complacency.
It does however point out a fairly glaring problem. Fowler, for all his benefits, was the best outcome possible for the Cardinals.