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Transaction Analysis 2/4/21: Cards Commit to Youngsters by Dealing Fowler to the Angels

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Late last night, the Cards announced the following transaction:

2/4/21: Traded OF Dexter Fowler and cash considerations to the Los Angeles Angels for a player to be named later or cash considerations. 40-man roster at 36.

This certainly comes as a shock. It’s the type of move that many fans wished the Cards would make but that almost no one believed the club would make. On December 8th, 2016, the Cards signed Fowler to a 5-year, $82.5 million free agent deal. Many thought that at least the length of the deal was too long. But after the Cards used Randal Grichuk as the primary center fielder in 2016, the club wanted a more reliable option, and felt like adding a 5th year to the deal for Fowler was necessary to get the deal done for a player that was deemed to be the best available option at the time.

Fowler’s time in St. Louis was uneven. He was about league average in total in his first year in 2017, with above average offense, but poor center field defense. The next year, however, was a disaster. Although signed to play center field, he was moved to right field in 2018 in favor of Tommy Pham and Harrison Bader. He struggled mightily out of the gate, and his season ended in early August with a broken foot. There was talk of communication problems with manager Mike Matheny before he was fired around the All-Star break and John Mozeliak appeared to question his work ethic—comments that Baseball Prospectus, in it’s 2019 Annual, suggested were racist. Fowler later said that he was depressed. All concerned hoped and believed that his .180/.278/.298 slash line would be an aberration.

Fowler bounced back a bit in 2019, and got into 150 games, his most games played since 2015. Still, his offense was just average at a 100 DRC+. In addition, manager Mike Shildt screwed around with the outfield that year, playing infielders in the outfield and starting Fowler in center field for 52 games when Harrison Bader was benched and then optioned. Fowler’s 2019 was better than his 2018 across the board, but he had 5 more extra base hits in 2017 in 83 fewer trips to the plate. In total, his 2019 amounted to just 1.2 WARP.

In the crazy season of 2020, Fowler was actually the Cards’ best offensive outfielder when he was surprisingly placed on the COVID-19 Related IL on September 2nd. He didn’t catch the virus, but the medication that he had long taken for ulcerative colitis had left him feeling fatigued and compromised his immune system, putting him at a greater risk to contract the virus. At the time of the IL placement, he was leading the Cards outfielders in all three triple slash stats (.279/.347/.485), a 111 DRC+, a 126 wRC+_and was also tied for the club lead in homers. Fowler came back for the last week of the season and started all 3 games in the playoffs.

This has to be considered a win for both clubs. The cash considerations the Cards are giving the Angels come in two forms. First, the Cards are paying $12.75 million of Fowler’s $14.5 million salary for 2021. Remember also that Fowler’s total deal was for 5 years and $82.5 million. Five years of a $14.5 million salary comes out at $72.5 million. The extra $10 million was a signing bonus that was broken down in a way that gave Fowler $1 million payments twice a year on July 1st and October 1st in each of the 5 years. The Cards are also paying the final two $1 million payments that Fowler is owed.

Thus, the Angels get a starting right fielder for $1.75 million for 1 year to bridge the gap until Jo Adell is ready. Fowler, who had to waive his no-trade clause, agreed to go along with this move after the Cards’ front office talked to him about playing time and will be reunited with his old manager Joe Maddon. The Cards created a situation that will put their young outfielders in the best position to blossom and certainly improves the defense. Fowler’s departure sets the presumptive starting outfield as Tyler O’Neill in left field, Harrison Bader in center field and Dylan Carlson in right field. ZiPS had projected Fowler to hit worse than all three. This is the outfield that everyone seems to wants, and there should be nothing in the way now to stop Shildt from running that outfield out there to see if it can produce. Feel free to revolt if Shildt puts a turd in the punch bowl by starting Matt Carpenter at 2nd base and running Tommy Edman out to right field.

I’m sure the Cards will frame the outfield situation as a competition with Lane Thomas and Justin Williams in the mix. But even if the outfield shakes out like I outlined, with no DH and a 5-man bench that partially consists of Matt Carpenter, the backup catcher and a backup shortstop like Edmundo Sosa, there is still room for both Thomas and Williams to crack the opening day roster.