During the 2016 offseason, there was a need, whether accurate or perceived, for a center fielder. Randal Grichuk was fine but not consistent enough. Harrison Bader was at least a couple of years away. Tommy Pham was an injury-plagued prospect that nobody ever was sure would finally make it.
Especially when the clubhouse was factored into the equation. The 2015 squad had some rumored issues in that regard. It was reported to be an uptight, rigid group of people needing a spark.
While there were a number of people–myself included–who were less than enamored with the deal, it made sense on a lot of levels. Maybe it would be an overpay, especially at the end of the five years, but it’s money they had and peace (or happiness) they lacked. And surely it would be fine for a while.
John Mozeliak was definitely happy with the deal.
“The athleticism, the excitement of bringing in a player that has all the physical attributes — but also those others, the ones that are behind the scenes that we put a lot of faith into.”
As we know, the 2017 season didn’t quite go the way everyone thought it would. Fowler, initially installed in the leadoff spot instead of Matt Carpenter, stumbled out of the gate. At the end of April, he was hitting .198.
It didn’t help Fowler at all that Tommy Pham, with new contacts, was destroying Memphis and Harrison Bader was showing that timeline for him was a bit out of date. Carpenter was flailing as well and defensively, any statistical gains Fowler had made in center seemed to have been left in Wrigley Field.
Eventually, things changed. Fowler stayed in center but moved to third in the lineup, where surprising power was unlocked while Carpenter went back to doing what Carpenter does. At the end of the year, Fowler had a .264/.363/.488 line, not the numbers folks expected and not the player the Cardinals thought they were getting, but a valuable one nonetheless.
With the emergence of Pham (mainly) and Bader, it was obvious to most that the team would be better served with Fowler in a corner outfield spot. And so, in November, John Mozeliak traveled to Las Vegas to talk to Fowler about the move.
Let’s stop there for just a second and really think about this. John Mozeliak has a number of stellar attributes. He’s a good evaluator if talent. He’s able to bridge the stats and scouts divide. He’s got a dry but sharp sense of humor and he’s a fashion plate. But one thing he’s not usually considered is a great communicator.
Remember, many players found out about the John Lackey deal, one that removed two well-liked players from the clubhouse, via TV. After Fowler was signed, Grichuk publicly stated weeks later how no one had yet talked to him about how that affected his playing time in center. Time and again communication has been lacking in this front office.
Yet Mo spent the time to go out to Vegas and talk to Fowler about this move.
“First off, I enjoy his company.”
Mozeliak was a Fowler fan, maybe more so publicly than any other player on the roster. He really seemed to connect with Fowler on a one-on-one basis.
So how, in basically seven months, did we get there to where we are today?
There apparently were some comments yesterday by Mo on KMOX, but it was today’s podcast with Dan McLaughlin that got everyone talking. Honestly, at first I thought Mozeliak was going to basically not state an opinion on the social media thread that insinuates or flat out states that Fowler isn’t hustling. Here’s the first part.
“I’ve also had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level. You know, those are things I can’t defend.”
If Mo stops there, you can at least make the argument that he was saying he wasn’t in Fowler’s shoes, that he can’t judge from the outside the motives, intents, and heart of a player. That’s somewhat arguable but it’s a defensible position.
Unfortunately, the president of baseball operations didn’t stop there.
“What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it is at the expense of someone who is out there hustling and playing hard.” (emphasis mine)
While Mo tried to walk it back and say he was talking about the team as a whole, it’s difficult to see where he is coming from with that explanation. Continuing on from there, he said they would be having a talk with Fowler after his paternity leave break and see where they would go from there. It’s impossible to believe this whole line of thought–a line of thought completely brought up by Mozeliak–somehow went afield in the middle.
Let’s get back to our question. How did we get from “flying to Vegas” to “maybe he could play harder”?
Obviously the easy answer is Fowler’s 2018 line of .171/.276/.278. Baseball is a very “what have you for me lately” sport and a downturn like this is part of the issue, but I have problems believing that is all of it.
John Mozeliak has his faults but throwing players under the bus and stoking controversy aren’t typically among them. If he is saying this (and let me be clear, I don’t believe that it needed to be said publicly), I believe there is probably much more to it.
What that is, I can’t tell you. Is Mo getting reports from Mike Matheny that indicates there are problems? Is he seeing a lack of motivation even after some discussions with Fowler? Is there some sort of clubhouse issue that Fowler is a part of?
I don’t know. I have nothing to indicate anything of that nature but I can’t believe Mo is going to stoke these fires just because Fowler glides after a ball. There’s much more there than just what we can see.
Fowler will be gone on paternity leave through the Arizona series. (Who know the fireworks would come at the beginning of the series and not the end?) Even with his own struggles, Bader has supplanted Fowler and now there are discussions about Jose Martinez joining the outfield carousel. It is starting to feel like they are already planning for Fowler’s exit.
Which is a shame. Fowler is a great personality and you hate to see any Cardinal fail but much less a major free agent acquisition. This whole thing has been a bit of a stain on the organization and the fan base. If Fowler moves on, especially when the Cards are paying him to do do, it’s a major bummer.
However, it’s hard to see how this season and these comments mean that Fowler will be a Cardinal much longer. Perhaps something to keep in mind this offseason when folks are clamoring for the front office to spend money on another player that may or may not be the answer for all of our problems.