A year ago, Bryce Harper was the prize seemingly every Cardinals fan wanted their favorite team to win.
Whatever the extent to which the Cardinals ultimately checked in on the marquee free agent from last winter, it wasn't enough to land him in St. Louis. While fans and media saw a clear fit for Harper as the new Cardinals right fielder given the lack of production provided by that position the previous season, the writing was on the wall throughout the winter that it wasn't a leap the Cardinals were likely to make.
The rumors and reports associated with the hot stove league kept the pilot light aflame for fans who wanted to believe that kind of splash was imminent. While the Cardinals are consistently tight-lipped when it comes to their potential pursuits, those who were listening to what the team did say last offseason were informed on the fact that Harper wasn't coming.
That's because a year ago, the Cardinals told us exactly the kind of role they envisioned for Dexter Fowler in 2019: A big one.
“Dex has a lot of pride,” John Mozeliak said last December regarding Fowler heading into 2019. “He certainly wants to come back and show what he’s capable of doing. Obviously we invested heavily in that, so we’re very hopeful that will be the outcome.”
Despite Fowler's .180/.278/.298 batting line in 2018, a chief consideration in the Cardinals' strategy to revamp their roster was to simply hold course with the embattled outfielder to whom they had pledged five years and $82.5 million prior to 2017.
As outsiders, we all could point to Harper as a superior player to Fowler to justify the notion that the Cardinals should simply cut their losses with the incumbent.
Fowler had a good debut season in St. Louis, but now he’s hit a wall. Hard. Creeping toward his mid-30s, he isn’t the same player anymore. The contract is a sunk cost. Eat the money and improve your lineup!
Listening to Mozeliak at the time, it was clear the Cardinals had no such intention.
“We’re looking at it as more of a fresh start for him under new leadership in the dugout and he’s very optimistic of where this is headed… We’re certainly bullish on him coming into camp and reverting back to what we saw two years ago.”
Though the Cardinals didn’t quite get a 2017-level output from Fowler this season, the 33-year old outfielder improved across the board from his nightmarish 2018. Fowler slashed .238/.346/.409 and provided 1.5 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs (fWAR), a vast improvement over the minus-1.1 fWAR he posted the previous year. He also looked more nimble defensively, even grading out positively as a center fielder.
Considering the position into which the Cardinals placed themselves with Fowler in the first place, the gambit paid off. He wasn’t Bryce Harper, but Fowler was a fine producer for St. Louis in 2019.
The Cardinals bet on Fowler, first with the contract and again with ample playing time a year after he struggled mightily. The first bet didn’t force them into the next one, but it certainly influenced their options.
“You look at where he was a year ago to what happened this past year, we're going to look at that as an outlier,” Mozeliak said. “Our expectations for him next season is to be a contributing member in that order, and I know he wants to do everything he can to be a part of that."
Okay, enough from Mo, already. You get the picture, right? Mozeliak and the Cardinals believed in Fowler, and for the most part, things worked out.
Except, this last quote wasn’t John Mozeliak speaking about Dexter Fowler before the 2018 season.
That’s John Mozeliak speaking about Matt Carpenter. Three weeks ago.
Here we go again.
Like with Fowler a year ago, the Cardinals enter this winter with the bold idea that they will improve by simply standing pat at a low-performing position.
Matt Carpenter began 2019 as one of the Cardinals’ top hitters and undisputed starting third baseman. By season’s end, Carpenter was relegated to the bench for several postseason games. His batting average fell to a paltry .226, his OPS to .726. More than 26% of Carpenter’s plate appearances ended in a strikeout. In 2018, Carpenter hit for extra bases in 11.8% of his plate appearances. In 2019, that rate fell to 7.5%.
Every element of Carpenter’s offensive game suffered, leading Mike Shildt to leave him out of the starting lineup for multiple games in October. Still, the Cardinals intend for Carpenter to play a major role in 2020.
The commitment to Carpenter obviously precludes the Cardinals from seeking an elite upgrade at third base; Anthony Rendon just isn’t going to happen. It’s interesting, though, to consider how money—as it did with Fowler last year—might play a role in the Cardinals’ process regarding Carpenter heading into next season.
Nobody complained when the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler. In fact, the deal was a welcomed example of the Cardinals breaking from their typical mold, going above and beyond what every other team was willing to pay in order to get their guy. Though the Cardinals may not ultimately receive excellent value from the Fowler contract, it would be disingenuous today to fault Mozeliak for pursuing it when he did. At the time, the Cardinals were desperate for an upgrade in the outfield. Fowler looked like a good fit—signing him was a reasonable move.
Similarly, there weren’t many who spoke out harshly against it when the Cardinals gave the 33-year-old Carpenter a two-year extension for $39 million in April. In fact, many shed a positive light on the deal at the time. Even my take was middle-of-the-road, leaning toward general acceptance of the team’s desire to stay in good graces with a player who seemed destined to end up a career-Cardinal.
The problem, from a business standpoint, is that the deal was completely unnecessary. Few voiced it at the time because few anticipated Carpenter falling off a statistical cliff in 2019, but the deal represented sentiment from St. Louis more than it did financial savvy.
Had Carpenter repeated his 2018 numbers in 2019, the Cardinals could have exercised his option for 2020, allowing that final season to play out before exploring a new contract heading into his free agency in 2021. At that point, even a still-productive Matt Carpenter would not have been likely to receive a multi-year windfall from a rival club given baseball’s shifting attitude toward aging free agents. In other words, it's hard to imagine that even a good output from Carpenter last year likely would have priced the Cardinals out of his services going forward.
As it turned out, though, Carpenter was not productive in 2019. So if the Cardinals had allowed Carpenter to play out this past season under the terms of his previous contract, they would have almost certainly declined his $18.5 million option for 2020, instead paying him a $2 million buyout. It’s a sickeningly Scrooge-ian concept, but the Cardinals then would have had leverage to seek a ‘prove-it-again’ deal with Carpenter, like they did with Adam Wainwright last December.
But had Carpenter come to the Cardinals looking for an extension, only for the team to rebuff him? Now you’re inviting potential discontent between the organization and a long-time, valued member of it. That could have resulted in an uncomfortable situation, with the Cardinals essentially betting against Carpenter’s 2019 performance.
In hindsight, it’s a bet the Cardinals would have won, but at the risk of alienating a cherished face of the franchise. And as we know, St. Louis is an organization that cares values history and legacy. Take Yadier Molina, for instance.
The similarities run deep between the contract status for Molina when the Cardinals extended him in April 2017 and the contract status for Carpenter when the Cardinals extended him in the same month, two years later.
Before the Cardinals signed Molina to a three-year, $60 million deal in April 2017, the franchise catcher was set to begin the final guaranteed year of his previous contract. He had a mutual option for 2018, with a $2 million buyout, but wanted to secure an extension before the 2017 season began. He even imposed an Opening Day deadline for contract talks. Ultimately, they worked everything out.
The timing with Carpenter was nearly identical; he signed his extension in April of his final guaranteed year.
Though it’s easy to question the timing of Carpenter’s extension—did the Cardinals really need to act with such urgency with a team option for 2020 still on the table?—the direct comparison to Molina’s at least provides context for the precedent the team had established for the handling of their veteran stars.
Had they waited on an extension, Carpenter’s 2019 would have likely dictated his status as a year-to-year player going forward, allowing the Cardinals to consider upgrading his position in free agency or the trade market if the right fit presented itself. They also might not have been as compelled to pencil Carpenter in for a full-time role in 2020.
But the Cardinals weren’t looking to exploit such a tactical advantage with Carpenter back in April; that wasn’t a road they wanted to risk treading. Because of it—for better or worse—the Cardinals are locked into paying Carpenter as a core player for the next two years, left to carve out the rest of their roster around that fact.