On Friday, December 9, the St. Louis Cardinals stepped out of their so-called “comfort zone”, announcing a team-record contract for a non-returning player. The recipient was free agent center fielder Dexter Fowler.
With his addition, the team addressed its most pressing stated need of the off-season, to obtain “a dynamic center fielder”, in the words of Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak.
The switch-hitting Fowler, who enjoyed an All-Star 2016 with the World Champions, owns a career .268 batting mark and a .366 on-base percentage along with 72 triples and 127 stolen bases in nine seasons (1,064 games) with the Colorado Rockies (2008-13), Houston Astros (2014) and Cubs (2015-16).
Some are wary of Fowler’s recent success, however. Specifically, his ability to sustain his 2016 improvement in defensive metrics, attributed in part to him playing shallower, has been questioned by some. Though there is less doubt about his hitting, as he has been a consistent offensive force at the top of lineups over his career.
Among active MLB players, Fowler is tied with Ichiro Suzuki for the highest on-base mark (.367) among leadoff batters (at least 500 games) but he also has pop, as evidenced by his fourth-place standing in slugging (.432) among leadoff men. His 21 career leadoff homers since 2009 rank fourth in the majors and are tops among all switch-hitters during that time span.
With the loss of Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss from the 2016 lineup, the Cardinals wanted to try to improve the 2017 offense overall. But the true genesis of the need for Fowler was the death of Oscar Taveras two years ago, followed by the departure of Jason Heyward as a free agent last off-season.
The club reportedly looked at other free agents as well as trade scenarios, but seemed scared away from the latter approach due to the high price other traded outfielders fetched. Fowler’s price in years and dollars is high, but not when compared to the current market. The organization’s loss of their first-round draft pick in 2017 is softened somewhat by their unprecedented spending in the international market this year.
The Cardinals decided on an approach that gives them a true center fielder and switch-hitter who can serve as a legitimate running threat at the top of the batting order. This should enable former leadoff man Matt Carpenter to slide into more of a run-producing spot in the lineup. Defensively, Randal Grichuk is slated to move to Holliday’s old left field position from center.
Near the end of this contract, there is certainly risk that Fowler will underperform compared to his salary. Of course, one could say that about most free agents. In the case of Heyward’s deal with Chicago, it began in the very first season.
The Cardinals made this move to be competitive in 2017 and from the big picture view, isn’t that what their fans want?
Follow me on Twitter.