In the fall of 2016, the Cardinals allowed 36-year-old Matt Holliday to walk in free agency. The Cardinals hit the market searching for a center fielder and a player who could provide veteran leadership and reliable production in a young outfield.
Dexter Fowler was coming off a 4.6 fWAR season where he walked 14.3% of the time and had a .367 wOBA. He was a key producer for the Cubs. With Fowler, the Cards hoped to not only add an impact bat to their lineup but also subtract that production from a division rival.
They inked Fowler to a five-year deal worth $82.5 million and a no-trade clause.
The first year wasn’t that bad. Offensively, Fowler produced a .358 wOBA and set a career-high with a .488 slug% and a .224 ISO. His fWAR dipped to just 2.6, however, based largely on a defensive performance in center that can only be described as atrocious. Fowler had a -16 DRS and a -7.4 UZR. Fowler also battled injury and only played in 118 games.
The second year is a season that shall not be written about. With the world falling apart around us and baseball feeling like a distant memory, I won’t pile on by dredging up Fowler’s 2018 stats. Look them up yourself if you’re just into that kind of thing. I’ll leave it at that.
574 PAs, .238/.346/.409, .326 wOBA, 1.5 fWAR
Steamer: 532 PAs, .235/.336/.399, .318 wOBA, .7 fWAR
ZiPS: 479 Pas, .234/.337/.399, .318 wOBA, .5 fWAR
Year three was only good when viewed in light of year two. If statistical models applied normal aging curves to Dex’s career, 2019 is spot-on with what they would shoot out. In some ways, this can be viewed as a positive. 2018 was so bad there were legitimate questions about Fowler’s viability as a major leaguer after year two. He answered those questions, if only barely.
John LaRue channeled his inner Nostradamus in an article from November of 2018 that examined players who experienced a Folwer-like collapse. It’s a fascinating read now considering we know exactly where Fowler fits into the equation. I’ll just post his conclusion here because it’s better in his own words:
“If you’re looking for positive signs, there are a few. Of our 21 rebounders, 15 recovered 90% or more of their pre-collapse wRC+. For Fowler, 90% of his pre-collapse wRC+ would mean a wRC+ of 109. If you want to subtract some value from his soft skills, it’s a player between 1.5 and 2 fWAR. If he were to pull that off, it’s a 2 to 3-win swing from what he provided last season.”
That’s some “a witch! Burn her!” levels of prognostication. Fowler’s actual wRC+ in ’19 was 103 and his WAR was 1.5.
So, year two happened. Then, in year three, Fowler successfully recovered 90% of his pre-collapse value, minus the kind of age regression one would expect from a player in his early thirties.
That makes projecting year four simple, as indicated by the consistency in both ZiPS and Depth Charts/Steamer projections. The projection systems are glossing over the 2018 collapse and are applying a standard age-related decline to his 2017/2019 stats. They have him dropped 3% in wOBA and 6% in wRC+ from last season. They also do not believe Fowler can replicate his health and lineup stability, giving him PA’s ranging from 476 to 532 in about 120 games played. The decline in PA’s and production limits Fowler to a WAR barely above replacement level.
Remember how we started this article. Five years.
We’re entering (maybe) year four. We’ve already regressed Dex to a just-above-replacement-level projection. A year remains after that.
That’s where the Cardinals find themselves backed against a pay wall of their own creation. Fowler’s contract is motivating the club to treat him as if he were still the player they originally signed — someone who can provide “veteran leadership and reliable production” for a young group of outfielders. This treatment is more philosophical and budgetary than any real belief that Fowler can perform in that way. The club seems determined to squeeze as much value out of that contract as possible, even if it means holding back elite young talent.
Fans saw a brief taste of this toward the end of spring training when at-bats and innings for Dylan Carlson disappeared and chatter rose from the beat writers about Fowler’s plan to ramp up his preparation from the regular season. Fowler was actually a little below his final Spring slash line (.097/.176/.097) at the time. Some even noted Carlson’s dip from super-human to merely extraordinary (.313/.436/.469) as a reason that he was being brushed aside. The whole situation was laughable, but it did forecast the Cardinals’ signed and notarized intentions from this winter. Regardless of how well Carlson performed or how poorly Fowler looked, the veteran would not be challenged in right field, at least until the Cardinals had delayed long enough to buy another year of Carlson’s service time.
This is a standard roster manipulation strategy for teams around the league, though it is one the Cardinals had managed to avoid until now.
While I disagree with this view, the Cardinals could justify giving Fowler a few months to prove himself while buying an additional season from Carlson when they had 162 games to divide up. The suspension of the baseball season could (and should) bring a change to that timeline. Every game cut due to the corona virus is vital development lost for Dylan Carlson. If baseball does not start until July and then resumes with a significantly shortened season, can the Cards still justify giving a replacement-level Fowler 1-2 months of plate appearances over Carlson? Pushing the young prodigy’s debut back to mid-August or September? Doing so could cost Carlson almost 3/4’s of a season of development. Limiting him in this way just because Fowler has veteran seniority is a terrible plan for an organization whose operating philosophy is draft and development.
Listen, I like Dexter Fowler. I think he’s an entertaining personality and at one point was an intriguing talent. The Cardinals, though, need to recognize what Fowler is at this point in his career. He is not Matt Holliday at the end of his time with the Cardinals, who was hobbled but still capable of providing offensive firepower. The actual stats and computer projections both say that Fowler is nothing more than a useful backup outfielder; the perfect guy to provide an honest challenge to Carlson, and to Thomas, Bader and O’Neill. He should not intentionally hold any of them back.
Five years. Two remaining. The Cardinals might have two seasons of Fowler left at a starter’s salary but he’s already past the point of viability in that role. When Cardinals baseball returns, it should do so with Fowler on the bench and Carlson in right field.
Update: Dan Szymborski reported at Fangraphs on Wednesday that MLB and MLBPA have reached an agreement on service time for players during a shortened season. Players will receive a full-year of service time if they remain on the roster regardless of the number of games actually played in the 2020 season. There is no word at this time about prorated service time for players who are not on the active roster for a full season. My best guess is that the MLBPA will want MLB to adjust the minimum games played requirement for one year of service by the same percentage as normal. A MLB season is 187 days and one year of service time is equal to at least 172 days on the active roster. Keeping the same ratio, a 100-day season would have a full-year cut-off at just 92 days. I am not certain how the playoffs impact service time accrual, if at all. This bears watching as more information comes out about service time, potential start days, and MLB/MLBPA negotiations.