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Was the Dexter Fowler Contract a Mistake?

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We’re barely over half a season into Dexter Fowler’s five year contract. Is there any buyer’s remorse? More importantly, should there be?

Colorado Rockies v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals won last night, and that was a good thing. Well, mostly a good thing; winning games keeps the Cardinals in the race, and winning games against the second wild card team they have to run down in order to have a shot at a non-division winning playoff spot is doubly meaningful, in that it represents that all-important Two Game Swing we always hear about when playoff races come into the picture. Sure, there are some other teams between the Cards and the spot the Rockies currently occupy, fellow competitors the Redbirds will have to overtake. But knocking the leader down a couple pegs is always a big deal, even if they aren’t the only rabbit you’re trying to run down.

So why, you might be asking, am I treating that gaining of ground as something less than an unqualified positive? Well, I’ll tell you: because the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees are currently working toward a deal that would send Sonny Gray and Yonder Alonso to the Bronx, in exchange for a package of prospects that has only really been speculated at, but would have to be fairly monstrous. Oh, and also the Dodgers, and the Nationals, and the Red Sox, and the Astros, and just about all the other teams are looking for help of one sort or the other, pitching being the major ask. If the Cardinals were to offer the Yanks a package of Matt Carpenter and Michael Wacha, don’t you think the return for which they could ask would be absolutely monstrous?

Now, for the record, I don’t think the Cardinals should trade either Pac-Man or the Galveston Grinder because either one are bad, or even mediocre. I happen to think both are tremendous players, even if each of them (Wacha especially), come with a few warts on their games. The reason I think the Cardinals should be making that sort of trade is because there are no sellers this year, and when there are lots of buyers and no sellers, well, you’ve heard of supply and demand, yes?

I also happen to believe the Cardinals should be making that sort of trade because they need to reshape the roster, rather than continuing to push chips in on a season I just don’t think is going to go their way in the end. They don’t need to blow the club up and tank completely, but there’s a youth movement on the way (more on that in a moment), and taking advantage of a market in which the sellers will likely have far more leverage than the buyers (though admittedly, the return the A’s received for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson seemed light, but that’s also Oakland, who basically never get what we think they should in a trade, because Billy Beane is essentially playing by a slightly different set of rules than everyone else), could set the Cards up for a new window as soon as the second half of 2018. In other words, they’ve got some pieces to work with, and if they did it right we’d barely even notice a sell job.

And thus, while I can never bring myself to root against my team, nor contain my fist pumps and exclamations when a sliding Harrison Bader beats the throw home to walk the game off, anything that keeps the Cardinals from making the changes, the reset, that I believe they should is ever so slightly bittersweet. Still, last night’s game was a thriller, and I can’t be anything but thrilled by it.

Is there any player in baseball today who is more overrated than Carlos Gonzalez? And how did he get to be so highly thought of?

In last night’s game, as Gonzalez was coming to bat (I don’t recall which plate appearance it was, honestly; I apologise, but wasn’t really planning on writing anything at all about CarGo until I began typing the first paragraph of this section), Danny Mac made some sort of comment along the lines of, “When CarGo is right, he’s one of the game’s best.”


Jimmy Baseball let the comment pass without, um, comment, but I just cannot. Carlos Gonzalez is not in any way, shape, or form one of the best players in baseball. He has not been one of the best players in baseball since 2013, when he put up a 4.7 WAR season in just 110 games, aided by a .368 batting average on balls in play, a 24% HR/FB rate, and the only ground ball to fly ball ratio below 1.00 of his career. He was magnificent that year, admittedly, albeit in a way completely unrealistic to expect ever again, but that was four years ago. Do you want to know Gonzalez’s WAR figures since that season? Well, here you go: -0.5 (yes, that’s a minus sign), 2.4, and 1.9. This year he’s been utterly atrocious, with a 50 wRC+ (not a typo), and a negative 1.5 wins above replacement figure.

Gonzalez had one truly great full season; a 5.8 win campaign back in 2010. He had that awesome partial season in ‘13. And outside of those two years, he’s been a decidedly average player. His career wRC+ is 113, which is pretty good, but not anything to write home about. (This sounds like a Matt Adams debate all of a sudden.) His defense in the outfield has been mostly mediocre. So why in the world is this guy, of all the players in the game, so incredibly overrated?

It has to have something to do with the counting stats in Coors Field, right? The kind of person who thinks that RBIs mean something is going to love Carlos Gonzalez, I would imagine. His home run totals aren’t really even that gaudy, given he plays a mile high. Hell, I know for a fact I’ve seen a few suggestions here and there on the interwebs from Cardinal fans that CarGo is the kind of big bat the Redbirds need. They don’t have that guy in the middle that scares opposing pitchers, so let’s get the guy who has literally been half as productive as a league-average hitter in 2017 to be that offensive scarecrow.

Again I say: dafuq?

I assume, ultimately, it has to be because of the one or two seasons when Gonzalez really has looked like the player he was touted as when he was coming up in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system (I was trying to recall the other day how he got to Colorado, then remembered he went from Arizona to Oakland in the Danny Haren deal, then from Oakland to Colorado in the Matt Holliday trade, and was immensely proud of my recall of decade-old baseball trades whilst in traffic), and the sheer aesthetic joy of watching him hit baseballs very far. In spite of the fact Gonzalez has been, for his career, a solid but not really exceptional hitter, I have to admit that even I am not immune to really, really liking the way he looks when he swings. There’s something both beautiful and terrifying about the way Carlos Gonzalez swings a baseball bat, and something purely rapturous about that exaggerated leg kick, more exaggerated stroke, and even more exaggerated follow-through when he really connects with one in that thin air. He hits these high, screaming draws that Ernie Els would be envious of, and they are, admittedly, majestic.

Even so, no matter how dangerous and skillful Gonzalez might look swinging a bat, people can read a stat line, right? FanGraphs is literally freely available to anyone with an internet browser. His injury history is long and varied and, again, not a secret.

I really don’t get it. Why is Carlos Gonzalez thought of as this much better a player than he really is? Sure, plenty of players are overrated. But this much?

Okay, now that I’ve suitably buried the lede, let’s get to the actual point of today’s column, shall we?

In that walk-off win last night I’ve already expressed both joy and ambivalence over, the star of the game was, in the end, Harrison Bader. It isn’t often a player making his big league debut gets to figure into a walk-off victory scenario, but that’s exactly what the New York native managed to do.

Bader had managed to impress both the crowd watching and the broadcasters in his first plate appearance of the evening, in which he began his big league career by very nearly legging out a routine grounder to short. Hustle always plays well with the crowd, and coming thiiis close to your first major league hit by going balls out on the most innocuous of rollers is a good way to endear oneself right out of the gate. Following that near-miss early on Bader struck out and flied out to center, with neither plate appearance really being all that notable. Neither was a debut, neither was a hit, neither resulted in a run, neither was really worth worrying about one way or the other.

And then, of course, came the ninth inning, when Bader officially stepped onto the big stage and announced his presence.

First came a crushed double down into the left field corner on a high fastball from Jake McGee. Actually, make that a 95 mph hour high fastball from Jake McGee; it’s more impressive that way. Then, after moving over to third base on one of the very few sacrifice bunts I’ve ever thought was justified, Jedd Gyorko came to the plate. McGee tried to sneak a fastball past Jedd up and in, but left it out over the plate. Gyorko swung, skied a medium-deep flyball to right field, and in spite of the presence of the most-definitely-not-underrated throwing arm of Carlos Gonzalez, Bader tagged up and raced home, posting the best third-to-home time of any Cardinal runner this year. The throw wasn’t handled cleanly at home, but even if it had been the play would have been very close.

Cardinals win, Bader family wins. It was a pretty great night all around.

Of course, Harrison Bader wouldn’t have been in St. Louis had it not been for Dexter Fowler hitting the disabled list earlier in the day with a wrist injury. Bader had been passed over for promotion twice already this season; Magneuris Sierra, by dint of already being on the 40 man roster, was a much easier add. But this time when Fowler went down, the Cardinals decided to pull the trigger on Bader, purchasing his contract and officially adding him to the big league roster.

So lucky for Harrison that Fowler was injured, right? I mean, obviously you never want to see any player get hurt, but it’s certainly not the worst thing in the world to ever happen to a guy in Triple A when the dude occupying his spot in the big leagues goes down with some nagging little thing. Dexter Fowler got hurt, again, and the Cardinals luckily had not just one option ready to callup, but multiple.

And that’s what we need to talk about.

This past offseason, Dexter Fowler was the Cardinals’ big free agent acquisition. Sure, they signed Brett Cecil to a relatively big deal as well, to serve as the club’s multi-purpose weapon out of the ‘pen in high-leverage spots, but make no mistake: Cecil’s deal was the appetizer, and Fowler’s was very much the main course.

The past few years, the Cardinals have been plagued by poor defense at pretty much all spots, but the outfield was a particular sore spot. Matt Holliday was a tremendous bat for the Birds for a very long time, but by the end of his tenure here the lego mand with the forearms was mostly a statue out there. The Cards brought in Dexter Fowler, on a five year $80+ million deal, to play center field and hopefully improve the outfield defense in the aggregate, if not specifically his spot.

There were, of course, those of us who thought it was strange, the Cardinals looking to upgrade the defense by signing a notably poor defender to play one of the highest-priority defensive positions on the field. Even with that concern, though, the Dexter Fowler fit seemed nearly perfect. Fowler, long one of the better leadoff hitters in the game, would bring his walk rate and on-base skills to the top of the Cards’ lineup, all the while filling in the biggest roster hole the Redbirds had.

A funny thing happened this season, though. Tommy Pham emerged as not only the Cardinals’ best outfielder, but one of the better outfielders in the National League. (I’m completely serious about this; you can still doubt Pham’s health, but look at his numbers.) The long-time prospect with the eye condition and the overall injury history of Samuel Jackson in Unbreakable is, at this moment, playing at roughly a six-win pace for a full season. There’s some batted-ball regression coming, most likely, but Tommy Pham is a legitimate five-tool player and the best overall player the Cardinals have had this season.

While Pham was breaking out, Fowler has been...fine. He has. The defense has been as bad as many of us feared, but the offense has been a definite plus. Overall, Dexter’s batting line is only a little better than league average, but he’s been hurt by some poor luck on batted balls, which should regress up toward his career averages going forward. He’s actually hit for more power than he ever has before this year, having seemingly made a conscious effort to pull the ball in the air, which has been great. The strikeouts and walks have been right about where you would hope. In other words, Fowler has basically done exactly what you brought him to town to do, so long as you weren’t really expecting him to have mysteriously gotten much, much better at defense at age 31.

So Dexter Fowler, five years and $82.5 million, has been almost exactly what you signed him to be so far. And it bears asking: was signing Dexter Fowler a mistake?

I feel I should say that the problem with the Fowler contract at this point really has very little to do with Dexter Fowler, who he is, and how he has played. Rather, it’s about realising just how long five years is, and how limiting it is to hand a big money deal with a full no-trade clause attached to a player likely already in the decline phase of his career.

There’s also the matter of the Cards’ outfield depth coming up through the minors. In fact, the state of the Cardinals’ farm system might be the even bigger issue than where Fowler falls on the aging curve; paying a player big money that he’s not quite worth is not such a huge deal if he’s still the best option. But paying a player big money he’s not quite worth when he’s locking down a spot you could use for other talented players....well, that’s a slightly different kettle of fish.

This season, we’ve seen Magneuris Sierra show he’s much closer to major league ready than many of use ever would have believed six months ago. Yes, his offensive profile at this point is almost entirely based on slapping singles and batted-ball luck, but he is a true impact defender in center field, the likes of which we haven’t seen with the Cardinals in a while. Sierra is the glove we hoped Peter Bourjos would be, before multiple leg injuries slowed him down significantly from his mid-20s peak. So between Tommy Pham and Sierra, that’s two plus or better center fielders, and one all-star level bat.

Stephen Piscotty appears more or less entrenched in right field. Whether he should be or not is another matter for another column, but for now the organisation appears convinced Stephen is still the guy out there long term. Randal Grichuk has had a painfully uneven season, but still possesses enticing tools and might be a better center fielder on the defensive side than Fowler. Hell, even Jose Martinez looks like a pretty cromulent backup outfielder.

Now we have Harrison Bader, looking very close to big league ready, if not there already. He can play center field, and having watched him in Memphis I think he looks pretty good out there. The Cards’ most recent trade acquisition, Tyler O’Neill, is an outfielder. Not a center fielder, mind you, but a power bat the likes of which the Cards don’t really have in the system. If he succeeds, he has the upside to grab a job and hold it for a long time. Oscar Mercado is right there with Sierra as a plus or even plus-plus defender in center, and has had a breakout season in Double A with the bat. Randy Arozarena has made it to Double A and is both a plus runner and defender in center, as well as an offensive dynamo. Adolis Garcia is in Triple A already, and while he probably fits best as a fourth outfielder who does a little bit of everything, that little bit of everything is all pretty good.

In other words, right now the Cardinal organisation is almost as lousy with outfield prospects as it is right-handed pitchers. The major league roster is overcrowded with outfielders (at least when Fowler is healthy), and there’s even more depth on the way.

So with that in mind, should the Cardinals have signed Dexter Fowler this past offseason? Or was it a mistake?

The problem, of course, is that back when the Redbirds were contemplating whether or not to go all-in on Fowler the emergence of Tommy Pham as a potential star was not yet known. If John Mozeliak could have looked into his crystal ball and foreseen that Tommy Pham would be on pace for five win season at the trade deadline, things might have been different.

But then, really, even without Tommy Pham, shouldn’t the Cardinals have been able to see the outfield depth they were cultivating? And shouldn’t they have foreseen the issues they would face in trying to parse it all out?

Well, in a word, yes. They should have. And, frankly, they probably did. Chances are, the Cardinal front office knew there was a chance that the wave of outfield talent they were trying to cultivate could potentially begin cresting as early as this season.

So why, we might ask, would you commit five years, $80 million plus, and a full no-trade clause to an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 if you had all this youth coming?

Because of the same thing I and many others here at this site have written about for much of this season. I called it the paralysis of success at one point not too long ago, but that was specifically aimed at being unable to pull the trigger on selling, even when maybe you should. We’ve heard of the NBA’s treadmill of mediocrity; perhaps we should combine the two concepts and talk about the Cardinals being stuck on the treadmill of success.

Being in such a position, of course, is generally exactly where you want to be as an organisation. Competing every single year for the postseason, with a real chance to make a run at a championship most of those years, is what all baseball teams (well, most; the Marlins do exist and are still owned, for now, by Jeffrey Loria), strive for. But it wouldn’t be a treadmill if it didn’t force you into certain behaviour, now would it? Treadmills aren’t known for their flexibility, after all.

So let’s think back to the offseason, and let’s consider, for a moment, a hypothetical situation. Say that, instead of signing Dexter Fowler to a five year contract that would lock the organisation into him and whatever production he offered, John Mozeliak came out and publicly stated that the Cardinals were not, in fact, going to do anything big. They believed Tommy Pham was going to take over the center field job, and both Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra would be ready to contribute in some fashion this season. Thus, they weren’t going to sign the big free-agent outfielder of the offseason, the one who seemed such a perfect fit for their needs, to a long term deal for big money. They were going to play Tommy Pham in center field and wait for the outfield depth in the minors to mature.

Can you imagine the response that declaration would have gotten? The howls of outrage would have been absolutely deafening. Screams about the organisation’s cheapness, about Mozeliak’s arrogance and stupidity, about the complete lack of a commitment to winning. It would have been horrible.

And yet, at this point, when we look at the organisation, would they really be in a worse position without Dexter Fowler on the books? Or would they, in fact, be in a better spot? A more uncertain spot, clearly, but would it be worse?

The problem here is that, had the organisation made the decision to go with the Pham Plan in center — or even the Grichuk Plan in center and the Pham Plan in left or something — they would have been punting on this season, at least somewhat, and completely disregarding the public perception of where the organisation is headed. Sure, the front office could look down the road six months or a year or two years and see there was a potential huge logjam in the outfield, but for 2017, Dexter Fowler was absolutely the right move.

The bad news, though, is that Dexter Fowler is not signed for 2017. He is signed for 2017, and 2018, and 2019, and 2020, and 2021, too. Dylan Carlson, the ridiculously young Peoria outfielder, will turn 23 in 2021, and if all goes as planned should be taking over a full time job sometime around then. But think of how many players the Cardinals will probably go through before Dylan Carlson gets to the big leagues, if he ever does. And they’re committed to Dexter Fowler that whole time.

The Cardinals could not say to the fanbase, hey, we’re just going to wait as our outfield depth matures and grows, because the fanbase would not have accepted that. And, to be fair, the Redbirds themselves likely would not have accepted that. This is not an organisation that willingly punts on competing, ever, even if the madding crowd wants to scream they aren’t committed to winning now because things have gone wrong this year.

The proof the Cardinals are committed to winning is the fact they signed Dexter Fowler for five years, when they probably only needed him for one or two, rather than simply sit back and wait for the wave to start washing future outfielders ashore. That treadmill of success carried them ahead, pushing them to solidify their position as best they could with the options that were at hand. And people could question why they didn’t pay the price in prospects for Adam Eaton instead, but isn’t paying money for talent what we all want them to do, all the time, no matter the cost? There’s plenty of money in the game, and never enough talent. So spend the one instead of the other, we say. The Cardinals did exactly that. And they went over the top with their contract offer, adding a fifth year and a full no-trade clause, to make sure the deal got done.

The deal got done. And now here’s all these outfielders. So was it a mistake?

We can look at the situation and say no, of course not. The talent percolating up now can be used in trades to gain things you need. But what if that talent is actually potentially better (not to mention cheaper and younger), than what you locked yourself into? Do you want to move it, knowing you’re committing to worse results?

The Cardinals could not say wait, just be patient. Our minor leagues will provide us with what we need soon. Why not? Because soon is never soon enough when you’re on the treadmill. Only now is ever soon enough, and now costs you soon all too often.

The Cardinals and Dexter Fowler, like it or not, are probably joined at the hip for four more seasons after this one. And as we watch the tide of prospects who play the specific position where Fowler makes his living start coming ashore, we will watch the Cardinals try to figure out what to do with it, and how to turn that surplus into value elsewhere. And all because they needed to be successful now.

So we come back around to the question: was the Dexter Fowler contract a mistake? Well, having a goodish player under contract allows the club to make moves to try and add value, so in that way no, it wasn’t. More good players is a good thing, generally speaking.

But being locked in to a player for half a decade, when he might already not be your best option at the position he plays, and there are more players potentially on the way you’ll have to try and find a way to play or trade? That’s not as good, specifically speaking.

Was the Dexter Fowler contract a mistake? That’s for you to decide, dear reader. I’m just here to present the facts as I see them.