When baseball teams acquire new players via free agency, it is an exciting moment. Right around the holiday season, fans acquire a shiny new toy to ogle and upon which to project our wildest dreams. And when the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million free agent contract two weeks ago, the excitement was palpable.
Visions of future greatness danced in our heads. For fans of a certain age (that age being “roughly my age”), the center field position in St. Louis has been defined by two stalwarts at the position—the criminally underrated Ray Lankford, who trailed only Ken Griffey Jr. and Kenny Lofton at the position by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement in the 1990s, and Jim Edmonds, who trailed only Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones in the 2000s.
With the hype surrounding Fowler, one might expect that Fowler is the logical continuation of excellent, long-term center fielders. And while Dexter Fowler has been a productive and occasionally superb Major League center fielder, his track record is not comparable to Lankford nor Edmonds. In the 2010s, Fowler (who has been a starting center fielder every season of the decade) ranks 12th in fWAR. Over just the last two seasons, his two best in the majors, Fowler ranks 7th in fWAR. His career-high 4.7 fWAR in 2016 would rank as the 5th best season of Ray Lankford’s career and the 9th best in the career of Jim Edmonds.
This is not to denigrate Dexter Fowler as much as it is to note that the Cardinals have recently played strong, consistent performers in center field. And if Dexter Fowler were to post a five season run in the same stratosphere as peak Lankford or Edmonds, he would be very worth $82.5 million.
In Ray Lankford’s peak five-year run, from 1995 through 1999, he was worth 25.4 fWAR. By 2016 WAR-to-dollars conversions (and this is not considering the projected inflation of player salaries over the next half-decade), Lankford was worth over $202 million. In his best season alone, a 6.2 fWAR 1998 in which he was consistently overshadowed by Mark McGwire, he would be worth roughly $49.4 million on the modern open market. At that rate, Lankford would be worth the entirety of a five-year, $82.5 million contract by early August of Year Two.
Jim Edmonds had an even stronger five-year peak, from 2000 through 2004, in which he was worth 34 fWAR, nearly $271 million on the open market. Only two contracts in the history of sports—the current one of Giancarlo Stanton and the one on which the now-retired Alex Rodriguez is still receiving checks—are worth more than Edmonds’s deserved compensation, and each of these contracts were for far longer than five seasons. Not to belabor the point, but yes, if Dexter Fowler plays like peak Jim Edmonds, he is worth the money.
Now, if Jim Edmonds were magically transported into the 2016-17 free agent class, he would not garner a $271 million contract. This was the production of Edmonds at his absolute peak, and when any player signs a contract, the team is assuming some risk—that the player will decline, that the player will be injured, that the player gets lost on the way to the stadium on a fairly regular basis (the former two probably have more an impact, but it’s impossible to tell, really)—and this dilutes the total compensation the player will receive.
During Dexter Fowler’s 4.7 fWAR 2016, his open market contract value was $37.6 million—2.28 times the amount he will earn in 2017. Under 2016 dollars-per-WAR measurements, Fowler would need to be worth 2.06 fWAR in 2017 to be worth his contract through its first year (this would slightly underestimate Fowler’s break-even contribution, as the cost of acquiring a win will almost certainly increase over a season).
During the 2016 season, 22 center fielders were worth at least $16.5 million in value. While $16.5 million sounds like a lot of money, it is not an absurdly high threshold for a player to reach. In 2016, Cardinals center fielder Randal Grichuk, he of a mid-June demotion to Memphis, an early August demotion to Memphis, and a lack of faith as a long-term center fielder so transparent that the organization admitted within days of the end of the season that they hoped to upgrade at center field during the off-season, was worth, according to FanGraphs, $17.3 million.
As was the case with the Cardinals’ marquee free agent signing from last off-season, Mike Leake, Fowler has several hallmarks of a contract which could age relatively well. Leake was a younger-than-normal free agent (he turned 28 the month before he signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Cardinals) whose relative lack of overpowering stuff gave him a fairly low short-term ceiling but a fairly high long-term floor—Fowler’s defensive metrics have, unusually, improved as he entered his thirties (and this may not be a statistical anomaly) while his offensive style, heavy in drawing walks, is less predicated on his physical attributes than it is for most players.
But while Fowler may not decline, this is all still dependent on him being good in the first place. And how good does he need to be?
We are still a bit removed from many projection systems releasing their individual player projections, but we do have Steamer projections upon which to put way too much stock. The short of it is that Steamer has Dexter Fowler at 2.1 WAR for 2017, which is tied for 17th among center fielders with Carlos Gomez. So, average-ish. Below average for a starting center fielder, technically. Steamer expects Fowler to maintain his power and stolen base production, but decline defensively and have his offense falter due mostly to a diminished batting average on balls in play (in 2016, his BABIP was .350; in 2017, his BABIP is projected to be .318).
This seems a bit conservative—while Fowler is unlikely to be Jim Edmonds or Ray Lankford, this projection suggests that he won’t even be Jon Jay, who surpassed 2.1 WAR in three of his four Cardinals seasons with over 400 plate appearances.
And yet this is a realistic, if uninspiring, target for Dexter Fowler’s Cardinals tenure. Cardinals fans aren’t expecting five years of Jon Jay-level production, but if they get five years of Jon Jay production, $82.5 million might be worth it based on current levels of free agent spending. In Jon Jay’s final five seasons in St. Louis (this is not his peak, mind you, and it includes his mediocre 2013 and his wretched 2015), he accumulated 10.3 fWAR—right in the neighborhood of $82.5 million in 2016 dollars, not counting for inflation.
The point is that the Cardinals do not need Dexter Fowler to be a superstar to be worth his contract, though they certainly are weighing at least the possibility of it into their calculus (just as they are weighing the possibility Fowler spends most of the next five years injured). Jon Jay was never a superstar for the Cardinals, but he was a solid contributor for some very good Cardinals teams. And while this is a less exciting outcome than hoping or expecting Dexter Fowler to become one of the best players on the team, it’s a reasonable expectation to have, and one which would still put the Cardinals on the positive end of the contract.