Last night, as first reported by Frank Cusumano of KSDK Sports, it was revealed that former Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler, one of the top free agents of this off-season, is scheduled to have a physical in St. Louis today. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale later added to the Fowler hubbub, reporting that the Cardinals were hoping to finalize a deal with Fowler soon. While I was writing this sentence, MLB tweeted that the two parties were reportedly close to a deal, and throughout the night, all of the usual suspects made Fowler’s signing with the Cardinals a foregone conclusion, because that is the nature of information overload in the Twitter age.
The actual nuts and bolts of Dexter Fowler to St. Louis (and if there is one player for whom you ought not assume that a deal is going to materialize exactly as you expect, it is Dexter Fowler) have not yet been reported, but Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson indicated it “could stretch them to five years and around $80 million”, which would match Mike Leake’s contract which was signed last December. If Fowler signed for $1 million a season, that’s great. If he signed for $100 million a season, that’s bad. In the extremely likely scenario that he signed for somewhere between these salaries (first reported by John Fleming of Viva El Birdos, must credit as such), well, we’ll see.
One thing we do know, however, unless some of the most accurate reporters in the business have all simultaneously whiffed, is that the St. Louis Cardinals signed a big-time free agent. And whether this particular long-term free agent deal works favorably can briefly take a back seat in priority to having re-established the knowledge that, indeed, players want to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Last Friday, while writing for 101sports.com, Bernie Miklasz implied that Dexter Fowler may not “want to play for Mike Matheny.” Three days ago, Frank Cusumano, who later reported the pending Fowler physical, tweeted that the feeling surrounding the Winter meetings was that Dexter Fowler was “not in love” with the Cardinals.
But as it turns out, it appears that money talks.
The central story of free agency plays out every single year—baseball players, as is the case with every supply of labor in every walk of life, are driven heavily by maximizing their earning potential. It is why Alex Rodriguez, just entering his prime, signed with the painfully mediocre Texas Rangers for a 10-year, $252 million contract when World Series contenders were offering him contracts which, while smaller, would still have made Rodriguez the wealthiest player in baseball history. It is why Jason Heyward, acutely aware of the seismic growth rate of free agent salaries, signed a contract last off-season with the Chicago Cubs heavily motivated by early player opt-outs.
While “this one group of employees are the only people on Earth who do not actually care about making money” sounds transparently silly when you hear it, fans have been fed plenty of information to suggest it over the years. Players will often frame their free agency decisions as matters of personal comfort, or as the desire to be part of a specific team culture, because this is an easy way to curry favor with new fans.
Extremely rare is the player such as Zack Greinke, who admits that his primary motivator is money, because while some fans (myself included) find this level of honesty refreshing, many others do not want to associate their favorite players as being mercenaries who will play for the highest bidder. Fans want the illusion that players are true believers, that they care as deeply about their team as the fans do.
But this is usually not the case. Like Jason Heyward, Fowler was raised in Atlanta and seemingly has no lifelong connection to the Cubs nor the Cardinals. But when Dexter Fowler is introduced as a St. Louis Cardinal, he will assuredly not cite “the Cardinals offered me more money” as a reason he signed. He will (probably) mention tradition, that he enjoyed participating in arguably the best rivalry in baseball, that he prefers St. Louis-style pizza to deep dish, et cetera, but money is taboo. Players, after all, barely mentioned money when it came to their new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
And as was the case with some Cardinals fans in the aftermath of Heyward signing with the Cubs a year ago, there are factions of Cubs fans who reacted to news of Fowler heading to the Gateway City with intense Madness Online. But just as Jason Heyward going to Chicago was not a reflection on the Cardinals organization or Cardinals fans being inferior, Dexter Fowler signing with the Cardinals is not a reflection on anything much deeper than “baseball player signs for more money”.
And for the Cardinals, this is significant in and of itself. Last off-season, after finishing second (or third, by some accounts) in the Heyward and David Price sweepstakes and instead signing boring (for better and worse) starting pitcher Mike Leake, there was some sense that the Cardinals would not be willing to pony up the money needed to secure stars in free agency. While Fowler isn’t quite Price or Heyward, he will almost certainly be among the highest-paid free agents in franchise history.
Fowler almost certainly has overwhelmingly positive feelings about his time as a Cub, just as there is no real reason to believe that Heyward, albeit in less time, has negative feelings about St. Louis. And that the Cardinals have the capacity to sign a player with such a positive association with its biggest rival says everything that you need to know about free agency and about the Cardinals: money is a huge factor, and as long as the Cardinals have enough of it (and enough of a will to spend it, when they see fit), they are hardly disqualified from making a dent in free agency.