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Dexter Fowler is an Investment in the Future

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A slightly different way to look at the Cardinals’ newest acquisition.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
Sorry, but none of the press conference photos of Fowler as a Cardinal are available yet. I know this is kind of gross.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It is official: Dexter Fowler is now a St. Louis Cardinal.

I have the Cardinal site open in another tab, listening to the press conference. I watched long enough to see Fowler put on his jersey and his hat, and then navigated over here to add my two cents to the pile. Fowler seems like a nice guy, from what I can hear. I like him already, on a personal level at least. We’ll see how the defensive metrics tell me to feel about him in July.

I’m going to admit right now that I have been very lukewarm on the idea of signing Fowler basically since the moment the offseason started. Sure, he seemed like the easiest, most natural fit on the market for the Cardinals, and it was simple to connect the dots and get a picture of Fowler’s admittedly charming grin, but I wasn’t completely on board. I’ve got two reasons.

One, the addition of Fowler, while certainly simple, is also supremely uncreative. Bringing Fowler in as a plug and play solution to center field would mean the organisation made very little attempt to find a better, less direct solution to the problem. Occam’s Razor is great and all, but where’s the outside the box thinking we see with the very smartest organisations, who find ways of filling holes beyond just looking at the market and saying, “Oh, look! That’s the closest thing to the thing we really want, so let’s just buy that!” I felt, at the beginning of the offseason, that there were ways to rearrange the roster that could lead to a much better overall product than just simply signing the Cubs’ former center fielder to a market value deal.

Two, this is yet another of those moves that, to me, feels like it does more for the floor of the Cardinals than the ceiling. I’ve talked about this ad nauseum over the past year and a half, about how the Cards seem intent on collecting an endless number of average to slightly above players that will ensure the team is never bad, but who lack the upside to ever really push for greatness. Dexter Fowler, for me, fits squarely into that barrel. Is there any way to see Fowler, over the course of this contract, posting a five win season? No, probably not. It’s going to be a whole bunch of very adequate, cromulent, perfectly fine performances, and we’re all going to be left wondering where that big leap forward is going to come from, now that the Cards are locked in to a 2.8 WAR player at yet another position.

As the offseason has gone on, though, I’ve come around on Fowler. I’ll admit that I’m still not over the moon about this deal — I had very high hopes coming into the offseason, and those hopes are proving to be John McLean-level tough to kill — but having witnessed where the trade market went this offseason, I am fully invested in free agent solutions to the near-term areas of opportunity the Cardinals have.

And so, I want to present my own perspective on why this deal makes so much sense for the Redbirds, and why, while I may not be completely sold on Dexter Fowler being the biggest possible upgrade the Cards could have pulled this offseason, I am sold on him being one of the smarter moves they could have made.

If we look at the return given up by the Nationals for Adam Eaton, we are forced to conclude that the trade market was affected this year by the real dearth of impact free agents. We could conclude that to a lesser extent about the Chris Sale deal, as well, but there’s also the fact Chris Sale is flat-out amazing, and while it seems like the Red Sox gave up a ridiculous amount of value for him (and they did), there’s also the fact that Chris Sale is flat-out amazing. Also, did I mention Chris Sale is flat-out amazing?

But Adam Eaton...is not flat-out amazing. Adam Eaton is a very good, very useful ballplayer, probably a legit star player, but not the kind of elite, franchise-altering talent you go to any and all lengths to acquire.

And what did it take to get Adam Eaton’s high quality play and admittedly awesome contract? Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning. What would be the equivalent from the Cards’ system? Well, Giolito is the easy one: you’re talking about Alex Reyes. Same unreal stuff, same command issues. Giolito has already been hurt, so there’s a little extra concern there, but I don’t feel very confident in Reyes’s future durability either, to tell the truth, so, you know. Reyes did certainly have a better first go in the majors than Giolito, and personally I think he’s a better prospect, but really, you’re splitting hairs. If you ask for Giolito from the Nats, you ask for Reyes from the Cardinals.

As for Lopez, he’s another big-stuff guy with some development still to do. He reached the majors this past season at 22, performed fairly well, took a few lumps, and looked like he’s really close to big league ready. Essentially, you’re looking at a Luke Weaver level kind of guy. Weaver is maybe a little more polished, but Lopez has bigger velocity and so a higher perceived ceiling, so we can call that a wash. Dane Dunning was a late first round pick this past year as a draft-eligible sophomore out of Florida. Big college program in the SEC, big stuff with a questionable delivery, considered to be a tough sign...sounds a lot like Dakota Hudson, the pitcher the Cards took out of Mississippi State five picks after Dunning went. So Reyes, Weaver, and Dakota Hudson is basically the package you would be looking at giving up for Adam Eaton.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a whole lot of talent. Now, to be fair, it may or may not be a whole lot of production; prospects fail all the time. But it is unquestionably a metric ass-ton (that’s a scientific measurement; look it up), of talent to send out the door for a really good outfielder signed at a bargain rate for three more years.

And that is why I look at Dexter Fowler as an investment in the future for the Cardinals as much as he is an attempt to compete in 2017. Don’t get me wrong; the Cards signed Dexter Fowler because they believe he will help them compete in 2017 and beyond. But, they also signed Dexter Fowler because they went out and explored those legitimate ceiling-raising level upgrades I was hoping for, and found the cost to be at least moderately terrifying.

It hurts to lose a first-round draft pick. Trust me; no one is more upset about losing out on the seventeenth overall pick in the draft next June than I am, since this essentially fucks up half a year of writing for me. (Not that I won’t be covering the draft; I still will be. It will just be far less enjoyable, and I may need to focus on different things this year.) But losing one first round pick, as opposed to two first former first round picks and an absurdly talented pitching prospect who, oh year, also happens to be on the verge of contributing to the big league club next year, is far less damaging to the future of the organisation.

So far, the Cardinals have not traded any of their top three pitching prospects, meaning they can still pencil Reyes into the rotation, Weaver into the 6th/7th starter spot in Memphis (or, hell, they could still deal him if something good opens up), and Jack Flaherty can still continue his steady progression toward a future #3 starter’s life by heading to Springfield this coming spring. They have not traded Harrison Bader, who at the very least looks like he could probably be a Randal Grichuk replacement as soon as midseason, and may have a better ceiling than that depending on how the glove plays. (My dream scenario is that we only have to watch Fowler play center for about half a season, and can then enjoy him plussing it up in left with Bader taking over in the middle and making everyone question how they missed the fact he was a +5 defender in center just waiting to happen.) They haven’t moved Paul DeJong, with his power bat and evolving, intriguing defensive profile. And they haven’t had to reach down to the low minors and trade away an uber-talented prospect whose value is still suppressed currently because he has yet to play above the Appalachian League.

I can understand some of the consternation I’ve seen over handing a relatively large contract with a big dollar amount on it to Dexter Fowler, and the potentially crippling reality that the last years of said contract could look a lot like the last two seasons of the Matt Holliday deal. But here’s the thing: sixteen million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to in baseball anymore. And for a franchise with the financial resources of the Cardinals (who, yes, play in a midsize market, but possess resources out of measure with that designation), $16.5 million is not in any way, shape, or form, an albatross of a contract. Particularly when you consider that after 2018, Adam Wainwright’s $19.5 million salary comes off the books. That alone more than pays for the deal El Birdos just handed to Fowler.

What this deal really does is help solidify the current roster, and preserve the future in a way the trade route would not have. My esteemed colleague Joe Schwarz wrote a column last offseason about acquiring Jess Chavez, and he and I actually got into a bit of a spat in the comments about it. My stated preference was to sign David Price, and I held to that line, saying something to the effect of, “I would rather pay in money for dominance than in talent for mediocrity.” I think Joe objected mostly to my use of the term mediocre, and admittedly mediocre carries connotations more negative than its actual meaning of “of middling quality”. For the record, I’m not trying to call anyone out, just going back to a previous opinion I’ve held. Spend money if you can, rather than talent.

And that is exactly what the Cardinals did with this deal. Admittedly, Dexter Fowler is not a dominant kind of player to the level of David Price, but the fact he costs only money, and not future assets which might one day grow into important pieces of the franchise, makes him a very attractive fit to me. If the Cardinals could have acquired a legitimate star, I would have gladly paid the price in talent. I probably would have given up the package for Sale the Red Sox sent. I’m not sure the Cards were in a position to do that; Boston’s system is extremely top-heavy, with some truly elite prospects at the top, whereas the Cards’ system, outside of Alex Reyes, is more like the Cards’ major league roster, with tons of depth and slightly more diffuse talent than you might hope to see. It would have been tough to match the star-level upside Boston offered, honestly, even including Reyes. I would have tried to match it, though. If Kevin Kiermayer were legitimately available, same thing. Go to the mattresses. If Seattle decided to put Kyle Seager on the market, I would deliver pretty much whatever it took. I still think the Jason Heyward deal was fantastic; I give up Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for an eight WAR swing in right field every day of the week.

But for solid upgrades that fail to reach that level? Probably not. And maybe Eaton actually is that kind of player, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he isn’t. And plenty of reasons to believe the Nationals gave up legitimate star-level talents to get him.

What the Cardinals essentially did by signing Dexter Fowler to a contract most of us will not find onerous, but aren’t completely in love with, either, was to invest in their future. Sometimes building for the future is as much about keeping what you might have until it matures as it is going out and acquiring more assets. The Cardinals can afford the money they’re paying to Dexter Fowler, and his contract really isn’t going to hurt their ability to make more moves in the future. The Cards could spend up to the luxury tax and still be profitable, according to all the best information we have on their financials. (And really, the could go over and still probably be okay, but I am fully on board with staying away from the extra penalties that go with exceeding the threshold.) The Fowler contract is not going to hurt them a bit. (Nor would a Turner contract, if they chose to double down on this method of talent acquisition now that it would only cost them a second round pick.) And in a couple years, when the Cards’ current crop of Low A and short-season talent is pushing toward the big leagues and they once again have a top three minor league system in all baseball, we will at least partially have Dexter Fowler to thank for that crop still being intact.

The Cardinals made a conscious decision with this move, and that decision was to utilise their most abundant and most easily replaceable resource — money — in order to avoid paying with a resource that is vastly more difficult to come by — talent. I understand the objections to this deal from people who say that no good (and more importantly, sustainably good), team has ever been built through free agent signings. And I would agree with that. Sustainably good, championship-caliber teams are built through the pipeline of young, cost-controlled talent that is the farm system.

And, only somewhat paradoxically, this free agent signing was as much about building through the farm system as it was free agency.