The Cardinals were terrible at home in 2016, at least by their post-2000 standards. As Derrick Goold noted in a column yesterday, their 38 home wins set an all-time low at new Busch and marked their lowest win total in St. Louis since 1999.
Towards the middle of Goold’s column, he gave an idea of where the Cardinals could be looking to improve this offseason:
When the Cardinals’ think tank and coaching staff convened this past week to begin building for 2017, the wish list included phrases like “more athletic,” “a cleaner game,” and “an upgrade in center field.” They intend to seek out a center fielder who improves the overall coverage of Busch’s faceted greenspace. They will count on improving the infield’s ability through stability. A year after acknowledging that they would give a little glove to get a better bat, the Cardinals want to improve their defense and fine-tune how they score runs. This is not just some winter makeover. This is a blend of eras they’ve been plotting.
If there’s a bright side to the Cardinals’ disappointing 2016 season it’s that their weaknesses were pretty easy to identify. As such, Cardinals brass, if we’re assuming this “wish list” has merit, seem intent on fixing center field, which was handled this past season by a combination (in order of plate appearances at the position) of Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Stephen Piscotty, and Kolten Wong. None of them offered a longterm solution, and that includes Grichuk, who saw a majority of the time at the position. (And credit to our own Joe Schwarz for calling this from the beginning.)
I can't be the only one worried that the #STLCards are banking on a combination of oft-injured Grichuk and Pham in CF, right?— stlCupofJoe (@stlCupofJoe) January 6, 2016
The upcoming free agency crop is not what it was a year ago, but like a year ago Dexter Fowler is available and should get attention from the Cardinals. Fowler just completed his age-30 season and was nearly a 5-win player (.276/.393/.447 for a 129 wRC+) in his second year in center field for the Cubs. For perspective, Matt Carpenter led all position players for the Cardinals with a 3.1 fWAR, which would have been sixth on the Cubs if you’re wondering how a team wins 103 games.
Fowler hit leadoff for the majority of the season, which is a spot the Cardinals haven’t quite known what to do with since Carpenter found his power stroke yet remained the only player on the roster who excelled at getting on base. Fowler would solve this problem and allow Carpenter to nestle into the two spot. Fowler’s walk rate was sixth in the NL for players with at least 500 plate appearances. He’s had a typically high BABIP throughout his career (.342) and he eclipsed that mark last year (.350). His ISO (.171) was as high as it’s been since he was playing half of his games at Coors Field. Offensively, he’s better than ever.
Defensively? Same story. That was always the big mark against Fowler. He most notably had a disaster of a season defensively for the Astros in 2014 (-20.6 defensive runs above average or DEF), but was much better last year (3.6 DEF). He’s still no Jim Edmonds but that’s a bit by design.
In a column last June, Doug Glanville noted on ESPN.com that Fowler adjusted his positioning by playing deeper which cut down on hits that would have fallen for extra bases in the past. At the same time, Fowler wasn’t allowing too many singles to drop in front of him that he otherwise would have gotten from his prior positioning. As Glanville describes it, Fowler may have found the perfect spot in center for his skills.
The Cubs are a stacked organization, and losing Fowler is hardly going to cripple them. But weakening them (however so slightly) to of great need and benefit for the Cardinals is an attractive play. That’s what hurt most about losing Jason Heyward and John Lackey last year. From an outsider’s perspective, the organization didn’t seem to put an extra premium on losing them to their traditional and competitive rival. If it’s a choice between offering two years to a very serviceable yet 37-year old Lackey or losing him to the Red Sox, letting him walk would have been fine. If the risk is losing him to the Cubs and allowing them to round out their rotation - the team you have to beat to get that free ride to the NLDS - then you offer him three years. The Cardinals didn’t do that and it cost them. Time to put the Cubs in that position with Fowler.
To recap, Fowler would be an ideal leadoff hitter, he’s hitting better than ever, he can play center field, he’s fine on the base paths, and we’d be acquiring him at the expense of the team who’s unequivocally the biggest threat to the Cardinals winning the division for the foreseeable future. Fowler certainly checks a lot of boxes.
I argued last offseason that the Cardinals should at least take a look at Fowler but ultimately felt that they were fine sitting idly by to see what they had with the youngish core of Piscotty, Grichuk, and Pham. I underestimated how ill-equipped the three were to handle center by proxy and I obviously didn’t know that Fowler was going to have a career year. This is a do-over. With center field being a big position of need in this pretty barren free agency market, the Cardinals would be wise to invest in four to five seasons of Fowler.