The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler last week, and upon hearing of the $82.5 million deal over five years, I asked myself if this makes sense. The more I looked, the more I liked, and here are six reasons why…
1) Can you win with him in center field? Of course you can. He was the everyday center fielder for the current World Champions.
The Cubs have won 200 regular season games over the last two seasons, plus three playoff series. In 2015, the Cubs were 91-58 when Fowler started in the regular season, and 6-7 when he didn’t. 2016 was more pronounced. The Cubs were 80-38 when he started, and 23-20 when he didn’t. When Fowler suffered a right hamstring injury in June, the club went 11-17 without him. With a healthy Fowler available, Chicago was 92-41. Winning percentage with Fowler….692. Without, .289.
Yes, you CAN win with him. In fact, Joe Maddon’s phrase for him, “you go, we go” could not have been more appropriate. As Fowler went, so went the Cubs.
2) Is he a defensive upgrade? There is fair argument as to whether Fowler is an upgrade over Randal Grichuk in center field. But there is NO doubt that Grichuk is a massive upgrade over anything the Cardinals could have put in left field last season.
After accepting the Cubs request to play deeper last season, Fowler’s Ultimate Zone Rating at FanGraphs.com improved from a -1.7 (his defense allowing 1.7 more runs than the average center fielder) to 1.0 (saving a run). Grichuk had a 1.1 UZR in center field for the Cardinals last year, so the two were virtually identical. Last year, Cards primary left fielder Matt Holliday had a UZR of -5.1.
While we don’t know exactly what Grichuk will do in left, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a significant upgrade over Holliday. So the Cardinal outfield defense should be better.
3) Does the lineup benefit? Fowler is one of the best leadoff men in baseball, and a switch hitter. That ability provides the Cardinals something they haven’t enjoyed since the switch-hitting Rafael Furcal led off in late 2011 and 2012. Fowler gives the Redbirds the flexibility to drop Matt Carpenter down to second or third, where his numbers translate as one of the best in the game.
If the Cards have a lineup of Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Yadier Molina, Grichuk, Jhonny Peralta, Kolten Wong and the pitcher, they have a lot of depth and length offensively.
4) Can he help in the clubhouse? Despite the Cardinals having done a lot of winning lately, they still have a young roster. Grichuk will be 25 when next season starts, and Piscotty, Diaz and Wong will all be 26. When Fowler was traded from Houston to Chicago after 2014, young Astros first baseman Jon Singleton told the Houston Chronicle “He was huge as a leader. He taught me a lot of things about baseball and a lot of things about myself that I needed to learn and need to continue to learn.”
In introducing Fowler, General Manager John Mozeliak talked about his desire to continue that role in the Cardinal clubhouse, and how it helps that he’s a student of the game. After the Cubs World Series win, Fowler wrote at ThePlayersTribune.com about what it meant to win in Chicago…
“I couldn’t help but think about the historic element of this World Series. But beyond just how long this city, these fans, this franchise have been waiting for a world championship, I was thinking about all the players who have worn the Cubs uniform through the years and who have passed away, or just guys who weren’t able to experience the joy that we were fortunate enough to feel on that night in Cleveland.
I thought of Ernie Banks. A lot.
And I know he’s smiling down on the entire city of Chicago right now, proud as can be.
Then there’s guys like Billy Williams, and Dempster, and Ryno, and Kerry Wood, and on and on — guys who are still around and who had our backs every step of the way. We did this for all those guys, too.”
It’s pretty cool that a current player appreciates history and wants to win for older guys that set the stage for what they did. Fowler is the kind of guy that can walk into the clubhouse and have a leadership role immediately.
5) Can he make Mike Matheny a better manager? It makes such a difference when a manager can walk into his office each day and know what most of his lineup is going to look like. And one through four should be pretty well set. Mozeliak wanted to provide less flexibility, and Fowler not only will be in CF and leading off, and sets the table for the 2, 3, 4 and 5 hitters.
Last year’s Cardinals didn’t have a ton of fun, for whatever reason, and Fowler adds a personality that will loosen things up and make for a better atmosphere. Matheny won’t have to do as much because he has Fowler as a veteran presence in the clubhouse.
6) Does he negatively affect the Cardinals’ ability to pay other players? Fowler is going to make $16.5 million in each of the next five years, which is less than Holliday made in the last five. The club has a new TV contract that starts in 2018, and a windfall from the presence of Ballpark Village. As the payroll rises as the young veterans mature, the large salaries of Peralta, Molina and Adam Wainwright will eventually come off the books. With where the revenues and the payroll are now and into the future, the Fowler contract shouldn’t be a burden for the Cardinals.
Ultimately, if Fowler continues hitting as he has the last three years and keeps playing defense as he has the last two, this contract should be a good one for the Cardinals. They’re pretty good about evaluating the players they bring in. There’s no reason to believe this one won’t work.