Between the departure of Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss, and Tommy Pham’s all-world ability to injure himself, the Cardinals could use an outfielder. Being that Randal Grichuk is ideally not a center-fielder, and the fact that the Cardinals could stand to improve their defense, it would help if that outfielder could play center. That’s where Dexter Fowler comes in. Fowler isn’t exactly a prized defensive outfielder, but he’d still improve the defense more than acquiring a corner-outfielder would be.
It’s still early in the off-season, but this is already the third piece published on this site on whether or not to sign Dexter Fowler. Alex made a case for signing Fowler, whereas John made a case for not signing him. Rather than be a tie-breaker, I prefer to find a price that it would be acceptable to sign Fowler at, and then see how realistic it is for the Cardinals to sign the center-fielder at that price. We’ll start how my articles typically start, by looking at the player’s general stats:
Fowler has been a strong hitter in two of the last three years. His defense tends to draw a lot of debate, and you see that in that stats: a tremendously bad score in 2014 followed by perfectly acceptable scores in 2015 and 2016. He also played at Coors field for a lot of his career, which seems to do weird things to defensive metrics. That walk rate and high BABIP abilities should make you salivate; he’d fit perfectly at the top of the lineup, allowing Matt Carpenter to bat second.
He definitely is a proven high-BABIP hitter: He owns a career .342 BABIP over more than 4,300 plate appearances. Fowler broke into the league in 2008. Among 291 players with more than 2,000 PA since 2008, Fowler ranks 14th in BABIP. Let’s check out how his Statcast-recorded batted ball quality in 2016 stacks up:
The numbers are created by pulling the Statcast data hosted by Baseballsavant.com. I found the batting average at each combination of Exit Velocity and Launch Angle, and assigned each of Fowler’s batted balls an expected BABIP based on the results. The velocity-based xBABIP only considers velocity, the angle-based xBABIP only considers angle. For more information, check out this post where I introduce these concepts, and this recent post on Justin Turner to find several links to articles in which I use these stats.
In 2016, Fowler’s batted ball quality overall gave him a total expected BABIP of .328, a full 31 points below his actual BABIP. However, Fowler is very fast. His 6.5 speed score ranked 7th out of 146 qualified players in 2016 and significantly above the average of 4.4. Fowler also gets shifted against somewhat often though, due to being in the bottom third in Oppo% (the percentage of his batted balls that go to the opposite field). His contact quality is fueled not by hitting the ball hard but by hitting the ball in optimal angles to be hits. Fowler placed 22nd in LD% (line drive percentage) and 46th in IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage) in 2016.
Overall, speed and shifting probably helps Fowler, so his batted ball quality probably should have been a bit above the .328 my system produced. Fowler’s Fangraphs depth charts projection expects a .324 BABIP going forward, which is factoring in some well-reasoned regression. I built some aging curves a few weeks ago for some stats, including BABIP, and those indicate that on average, a player loses 8 points of BABIP between their aged 30 and 31 seasons, which is where Fowler currently stands.
Let’s look at how that affects his overall offensive numbers:
Fowler’s power numbers were weaker than my system figured, so some of the the BABIP regression is cancelled out by that. The end result is a wOBA 11 points higher than the contact quality suggests. And then the speed should bump him up. The projections aren’t as optimistic though, forecasting a .341 wOBA. The projections are regressing his strikeout and walk numbers as well, which I didn’t mess with.
So how much does Fowler project to cost? We’ll take his Fangraphs depth chart projection for 2017, pro-rate it to 600 plate appearances, and apply the average aging curve for WAR per 600 plate appearances. Here’s the result:
Remember, Fowler will almost certainly come with draft pick compensation, and for the Cardinals, that cost can be quantified to about $10M. So $50M over four years makes more sense in terms of price. If you’re higher on Fowler than the projections, which can be argued, he’d of course be worth more. Start him off with an extra third of a win, and his worth is $72.5M over four years, or $62.5M after considering the draft pick.
This table also shows the danger in offering Fowler a four year deal though: he projects to not be a starter-caliber player in the last year of a deal. No one ages at the average rate of course, and most free agent deals don’t end well. But he looks fairly likely to not be average in the third year of the deal. If Fowler was amendable to a three year deal, he’d be projected to worth about $52M over three years (or $42M with the pick attached), or if you're a bit higher on him than the projections, $50M with compensation attached.
There is one loophole though: I mentioned my preference to sign Justin Turner earlier. He’ll also have draft pick compensation attached. If the Cardinals already forfeited their fist round pick to sign Turner, they’d only forfeit their second round pick by signing Fowler. That pick, per the research cited earlier, would be worth only about $5M. That means the projections could justify a $47M/3 year deal or a $56M/4 year deal. Again, if you’re a little higher on him, you can justify a $59M/3 year deal or a $67M/4 year deal.
I’m not holding my breathe though. The Cardinals have never signed a player with a qualifying offer attached, they’re probably not going to go out and sign two this winter. As I’ve mentioned before, trading Jedd Gyorko for prospects would help alleviate the cost to the future. Signing Lourdes Gurriel wouldn’t hurt either. I understand and appreciate the Cardinals slavish devotion to hording draft picks, but sometimes you have to get creative.
Besides, that cost might not be enough. Using MLBtraderumors.com‘s transaction tracker, I checked what similar center-fielders received in free agency. There wasn’t all that many deals just for center-fielders, so I included a few corner-outfielders who had somewhat similar defensive value to Dexter. I also included their age and the year of the first year of the deal, and each player’s WAR in their three seasons preceding free agency:
Michael Bourn reached free agency with the best resume of the players listed here. There’s been a lot of inflation in the game since the 2012-2013 offseason, so the raw numbers don't do his contract justice. Alex Gordon I think should provide a bit of a ceiling for Fowler. This is a weak free agent class though, so who knows what could happen if multiple teams find Fowler to be their best option.
Denard Span is the only player listed here who didn’t get four years, and he had a poor walk year and entered the offseason with significant health questions. So look for Fowler to get four years despite my concerns over it above. If you see Fowler as the projections see him, and the Cardinals didn’t already sign Turner or another QO-attached player, it’ll be hard to sign him to a price that makes sense on the Cards’ end. $50M/4 years just doesn’t seem like it would get it done.
So with that said, the Cardinals should probably not sign Dexter Fowler. But maybe they should! From the outside we just don’t know how GM’s will value Fowler, and maybe he’s the type whose market ends up being hurt a lot by a qualifying offer (he was last year). However, in an especially weak market, this exercise might under-rate Fowler’s earning power. Either way, at least we’ve ballparked his value and potential earning power.