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John Mozeliak was wrong to criticize Dexter Fowler’s effort

Mozeliak’s comments only aggravate an already delicate situation

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Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Cardinals entered their June 17th series finale against the arch rival Cubs in dire need of a win. St. Louis had dropped four consecutive home games, staring down a potential 5 12 game deficit if Chicago wrapped up a sweep on Sunday Night Baseball. Instead, the Cardinals rebounded with a 5-0 victory, pushing their playoff odds back up to 47.7% as the statistical favorite to secure the second wild card. Lost in the shuffle of that game was a pinch-hit walk drawn by Dexter Fowler, a rarity given his abysmal production in 2018.

Since then, the Cardinals have cobbled together a 5-8 record (this article was written prior to the July 2nd game in Arizona), falling from fifth to eighth in FanGraphs’ projected NL standings over just two weeks’ time. At a season-low 27.8%, their postseason probability has almost been sliced in half.

Just last week, Ben Godar wrote about “the measured, political way GM turned President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has of talking about the club, often without revealing much at all.” In fact, we have a “Mospeak” tag here at VEB for articles dedicated to deciphering Mozeliak’s cryptic language. His recent tone, however, has been anything but subtle.

In yesterday’s “Mondays with Mo” segment on Dan McLaughlin’s Scoops with Danny Mac podcast, Mozeliak spoke about Fowler with a bluntness sparsely, if ever, heard from him.

I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level and those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone that’s out there hustling and playing hard. I think everybody just needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. In Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody. I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future to really just decide what makes the most sense, but clearly he’s not playing at the level we had hoped.

Mozeliak pointedly called out Fowler–and Fowler alone–for a lack of effort. Never mind the recent struggles of Jedd Gyorko or Luke Weaver or any of the other number of Cardinals players who have been playing poorly. Never mind the hitting coach whose job is to help ignite this anemic offense. Never mind the manager–the supposed “Leader of Men” that can rally the troops and motivate anyone!–who has yet to display tactical competency in his seventh year of employment.

Never mind the front office executive who assembled this roster and inked Fowler to an $82.5 million contract.

For the record, I would be inclined to disagree with those effectively citing laziness as the impetus for Fowler’s lackluster performance, but that’s besides the point. Even if you do believe that Fowler doesn’t hustle enough, that doesn’t necessarily justify Mozeliak’s comments.

Inadvertent or not, the timing of Mozeliak’s criticism was downright inappropriate. Fowler went on paternity leave, rendering him unavailable to respond, right as news of the incident made the Internet rounds, which the outfielder evidently noticed by liking a tweet containing the link to an article about the situation. Mozeliak’s comments also come on the heels of Dexter and his wife, Aliya, essentially deleting their Twitter accounts in the wake of mounting scrutiny from fans.

More importantly, there is also the question of what Mozeliak sought to gain by openly publicizing his remarks. Let’s give Mozeliak the benefit of the doubt by assuming that Fowler’s -1.1 fWAR this year can primarily be attributed to minimal effort rather than the product of unfavorable batted ball luck, a nagging injury, age-based talent decline, or any other factors unrelated to his work ethic. (Again, I would bet against the possibility of those items I just listed being irrelevant to Fowler’s dismal season.) CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry laid out a hypothetical scenario where airing his grievances to the press would make sense for Mozeliak.

Now, that is a very narrow set of circumstances that could–but I might argue still shouldn’t–warrant further consideration for speaking as candidly as Mozeliak did. Besides, reports are indicating that Mozeliak and Fowler had the polar opposite of an extensive dialogue leading up to the podcast recording.

Why exactly is Mozeliak (presumably) throwing one of his own players under the bus in front of the public eye, especially if he had not discussed matters with said player in advance, as McLaughlin’s tweet suggests? There is the argument that the Cardinals are attempting to belittle Fowler into waiving his no-trade clause or applying pressure to coerce him into accepting a minor league assignment, but you would somehow have to claim that the efficacy of those conversations would be hindered by holding them behind closed doors. Furthermore, how would that reflect on the Cardinals as they are viewed by players who are currently a member of other organizations? (More on that in a moment.)

As the above tweet implies, Mozeliak has already begun to walk back his original statement and shift into damage-control mode. I want to be careful not to excessively speculate here, but Mozeliak has yet to explicitly apologize to Fowler, at least to our knowledge. We may never know definitively whether or not Mozeliak intended to single out Fowler as a result of his own frustration over the signing and the Cardinals’ underwhelming performance as a whole this year, although that is nevertheless the message you convey when condemning the energy and effort of an individual player. At best, this gaffe is the culmination of a poorly-worded, poorly-timed answer on Mozeliak’s part. At worst, this further rocks what was already far from a smooth sailing ride in St. Louis for Fowler and amplifies organizational flaws that could alienate not just Fowler, but other players as well.

Rooted in a midwestern city that ranks just 21st in market size, the Cardinals already face a geographic disadvantage when it comes to attracting the type of top-flight caliber acquisition this organization so desperately needs. Like with the Giancarlo Stanton negotiations, there are likely to be instances in which money alone cannot close the deal. St. Louis’ reputation as a destination for outside players has deteriorated in the recent past, and inflammatory comments like Mozeliak’s have at best a neutral effect on persuading premier talents to join the Cardinals.

Before you grab your pitchforks and run my fellow PC snowflake social justice warriors and I out of town, there is one more point I would like to make. Not to disseminate my highly-classified position on the political spectrum, but I am of the firm belief that racial discrimination is, unfortunately, something that is still very much prevalent in our society, baseball included. That is a discussion for another day, but whether you agree with me or not, I don’t think there is denying the perception some have of the Cardinals as adopting a double standard for white and nonwhite players. While Carlos Martinez fields criticism regarding his maturity, Randal Grichuk’s, for example, on-field woes were explained by still-developing pitch recognition skills without any indictments of his character or effort.

As former VEB writer/editor John Fleming said at early last month:

Sure, it’s possible that Fowler isn’t trying as hard as he could be, just as it’s possible Jedd Gyorko isn’t trying as hard in the field as he could. But that these accusations are reserved for one of two African-American players on the roster (if anyone accuses Tommy Pham, who gives a borderline psychotic level of effort at times, of laziness, I will be much angrier writing that post) is more than a bit alarming. It’s worth noting that Fowler has commented that the sociopolitical climate of St. Louis was a consideration when he was a free agent and that, fairly or not, there is a perception that St. Louis is an uncomfortable place for black players.

No party involved wants to experience an ugly conclusion to Dexter Fowler’s tenure in St. Louis. Make no mistake, I am by no means giving Fowler anything close to a free pass for the way he has played this season. He has lost his grasp on the starting right field job, and rightfully so given his performance both at the plate and in the field. However, talk of his subpar contact quality or defensive prowess is different from accusations of him carelessly playing without effort. The validity of John Mozeliak’s comments is a moot point, for they represent the type of tone-deaf missteps that can quickly accumulate to needlessly sour a relationship between management and player.