The long-stated purpose of the Cardinals this offseason has been to get a center fielder. Dexter Fowler is a center fielder, and fits that stated need. The Cardinals can now move Randal Grichuk to left field. Whether Fowler is an upgrade from Grichuk in center field is debatable, but he certainly improves the defense from where it was last season. While Fowler fits a need in the outfield and at the top of the lineup, he is a slightly above average player and the gap between the Cardinals and Cubs didn’t move a lot. They still need to do more.
Fowler is a reasonable addition supported by some here at VEB, but several writers voiced concern about Fowler, especially in relation to potential alternatives. With the price of Adam Eaton fairly high, and apparently finding the price of other trade targets too rich to stomach, the price for Fowler seemed to fit the bill for the Cardinals.
Fowler has a skillset on offense that should age well, as I wrote for FanGraphs,
Fowler’s bat should remain an asset over the course of his contract, and there’s some evidence that he will be able to hold onto his numbers better than some. How high you go on a contract is going to depend on where you think his defensive talent lies. If Fowler ages well, he’ll only need to be produce a 2.4 WAR in 2017 — and experience typical age-related decline — to be worth $70 million. That would be without an overly positive look at his defense. If you’re a believer in Fowler’s defense, his value might be $20 million or more above that figure. Defense doesn’t often get paid, but Fowler’s contract might reveal where the market thinks Fowler’s glove is now and into the future.
It is not fair to say that Fowler only cost the Cardinals money. The Cardinals also lose their first round pick in next year’s draft, which is generally valued around $10 million to $15 million. A second round pick is not as valuable, and that is what the Cardinals would lose for signing another free agent. Now that the Cardinals are down the path of losing their first round pick, signing another free agent makes a lot of sense.
Last night, just before the Dexter Fowler signing, Ben Markham made the case for signing Fowler and Justin Turner, and Turner would certainly make a lot of sense. The Cardinals currently have Jhonny Peralta slated to play third base, and of the Cardinals position players, he is projected to have the worst season. His salary is just $10 million next year, and should the Cardinals want to, it is an easy contract to move.
Turner is not the only option, however, and Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson mentioned Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion. Trumbo would be a terrible signing at any price given his poor walk rates, and moving Matt Carpenter to third base would probably make the Cardinals worse compared to just sticking with Peralta at third. IN the short term, Edwin Encarnacion would provide an offensive boost, though the team would certainly sacrifice some defense in the process.
Encarnacion was healthy all season, which masked a few drops in his production from the heights of his previous four years, as I wrote for FanGraphs:
Encarnacion was slightly less powerful in 2016, as seen by his 14-point drop in ISO, and he struck out 25% more often, experiencing an increase in strikeout rate from 15.7% in 2015 to 19.7% last season. His fly-ball rate declined for the second straight season, and while he made up for that somewhat with the highest rate of home runs per fly ball in his career, that might not be sustainable going forward. In the context of greater offense overall throughout baseball last year, Encarnacion’s offense relative to the rest of baseball actually took a hit, dropping him from a 150 wRC+ in 2015 to a 134 wRC+ last year. His playing time masked the drop in quality.
While Encarnacion does have a very good walk rate and would certainly help the Cardinals lineup next year, at 34 years old, he isn’t likely to age well. That said, if the price for Encarnacion is around $60 million, he would be a decent bet to provide value over the course of the next 3-4 years.
At the beginning of the offseason, I hoped the Cardinals would make a splash this offseason. Signing Dexter Fowler does not qualify. He makes the Cardinals slightly better, raising the floor for next season without doing much for the ceiling. With a weak free agent market, the trade market is still the best way to make a significant addition this offseason. While the team shouldn’t give up Alex Reyes without acquiring a star-level talent, the Cardinals still desperately need a star-level player. They’ve missed out on recent targets, and while Dexter Fowler can make the Cardinals better, he doesn’t close the gap on the Cubs to make the division a realistic possibility.
If the offseason ended right now, it would very much resemble last year, when the Cardinals big move was to sign Mike Leake. The Cardinals set expectations for the offseason at improving the defense by finding a center fielder. They have done that, but there is still much more work to be done.