Entering 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals seemed relatively confident utilizing one of two center fielders in their starting lineup: primarily Randal Grichuk, previously regarded as more of a corner outfield type before his 2015 breakthrough, and Tommy Pham, an oft-injured 28 year-old who was able to transcend his lack of flashy prospect bullet points with solid production at the MLB level.
In 2016, Randal Grichuk had an extremely volatile season, occasionally looking like a superstar (his .448 ISO in August was wildly and obviously unsustainable from the beginning, but still) and occasionally looking lost (a 25 wRC+ in June), but perhaps the most important development in his perception was defensively.
Grichuk entered the season with some questions about whether or not his 2015 center field competence was sustainable, and in 2016, he had a slightly below-average Ultimate Zone Rating in center field. Although he still rates as above-average for his career, the eye tests (as well as internal metrics) within the Cardinals organization seem to think less of Grichuk’s glove.
Randal Grichuk’s stock as a present and future everyday center fielder seems to have taken a bit of a nose dive. Since the end of the Cardinals’ season, the club has been rumored to have interest in upgrading at center field and that, with Matt Holliday presumed to be on his way out of St. Louis, Randal Grichuk would take over Holliday’s spot in left field. While Tommy Pham will still be around, barring a trade, Mike Matheny’s reluctance to give him playing time late in 2016 implies that the Cardinals are not expecting him to be a full-time player going forward.
And while the Cardinals do have other players who played in center field last season, none seem to be likely long-term answers in the starting lineup. Kolten Wong is easily the team’s best defensive second baseman, Stephen Piscotty was only used in center to maximize offensive production and would certainly be relegated to a corner if a healthy Randal Grichuk is in the lineup, and Jeremy Hazelbaker was not consistently on the MLB roster, much less regularly starting. An outside acquisition seems much more likely.
When evaluating potential fits in center field, the intuitive first place to look is to available free agents, and one of the best available this off-season will likely be Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler. Alex Crisafulli wrote on Monday that the Cardinals should sign him, and the reasons for the Cardinals to do so would indeed be compelling.
Fowler, after all, has been a tremendous value for the Cubs this season. He was an all-star for the first time in his career and was worth a career-high 4.2 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement and 4.7 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Although Fowler has a mutual option for 2017 to stay in Chicago, it would require malpractice of the highest order from his representation to suggest that he accept $9 million for next season. Fowler is, deservedly, going to get paid.
But when Dexter Fowler gets paid this offseason, it will largely be a reflection not on what he will do, but on what he has done. And while there is an obvious predictive element to any past results (Mike Trout will probably once again be the best player in the world in 2017), they do not necessarily foretell the future.
In the case of Fowler, these concerns exist on both levels. While Fowler has been a consistently good player, he has only recently become a great player (or at least had great results). In 2015, he added a full additional FanGraphs win above replacement to his career high, and in 2016, this fWAR peak increased by 1.4. This was partially driven by offense, particularly when he posted a career-high 129 wRC+ in 2016. But what really led to his spike in player value was his defense.
2016 was the first year in which Dexter Fowler had an above-average UZR since 2008, a season in which he played fewer than 50 innings in center field. In 2015, he was slightly below average defensively, producing a UZR/150 of -1.9.
His combined UZR in his two seasons with the Cubs, in which he played 2351 2⁄3 innings, is -0.7 runs, which ranks 8th among the 16 qualified center fielders in baseball during this time, suggesting that he is a league-average defender among regular starters. He may not have been an elite fielder in the conversation with Kevin Kiermaier or Billy Hamilton as baseball’s best, but he was perfectly serviceable.
However, Fowler’s track record of fielding competence has been largely confined to two seasons. In 2014, by UZR, Fowler was the worst fielding regular center fielder in baseball. He was also the worst incorporating data from both 2013 and 2014. He was the worst from 2012 through 2014. And from 2011 through 2014.
Even incorporating Fowler’s respectable last two seasons, he has been the second worst defensive center fielder in baseball among center fielders with 5,000 or more innings since 2009, his first full season in MLB. The only worse center fielder was Matt Kemp, whom the Los Angeles Dodgers began pushing to corner outfield spots in 2014 and has played in corners exclusively with the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves.
It seemed for a while that this was going to be Fowler’s fate. Like Kemp, Fowler has the bat to justify the transition (unlike, say, the aforementioned Billy Hamilton, who would be borderline at best as a Major Leaguer in left or right field but has value in center due to his glove). The problem for the Cardinals is that signing Fowler would contradict the original goal of bolstering the defense. If he were to be relegated to left or right field, he could still be a more-than-productive player, but this would also leave the Cardinals playing Randal Grichuk in center field.
Even if one is to believe that Fowler’s center field production is an accurate representation of what his true talent was (I doubt it, as the normal aging curve for fielders is almost strictly downward, but there are some exceptions to this rule), Fowler will be 31 on Opening Day. Of the seventeen qualifying seasons this decade by center fielders aged 31 or older (that there has been fewer than 2 1⁄2 per season is itself a bit of a sign), only four have been positive defensively by Defensive Runs Saved, and each had longer track records of defensive production before that season than Fowler has had.
Dexter Fowler is certainly a player that would be worth having on your team in a vacuum. He provides value, whether in center, left, or right field. But in order for him to be a truly special player, teams are banking on a couple of factors to go his way—for his defense to not be an aberration, and for his historically high batting averages on balls in play to continue even as his speed likely declines. And for the high cost that Fowler will demand on the open market, the potential reward will probably not be worth the risk.