Hydra’s main slogan is if you cut off one head, two more will rise to take its place. This week, the Cardinals did the reverse Hydra, bringing in one player and cutting ties with two more. While Kolten Wong was expected, given that he was on the free agent market and there seemed little chance of his returning, Thursday night’s deal sending Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels was a little more shocking to the system.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Dexter Fowler signing at the time. I thought that Fowler was a fine player, but not necessarily anything that was going to change this franchise. It felt like the Cardinals were just going to get the best player available at a position they thought they needed, which is admirable, but the in-house options wouldn’t be that much different. Which turned out to be partially true. Tommy Pham had his big year in 2017 and showed he could handle center field when necessary. There were a slew of other outfielders that took steps up as well, meaning the Cards had an outfield glut that, to some degree, they still have today (though less at this moment than at any time in the last four years, probably).
I think the emergence of Pham, coupled with the ridiculously slow start Fowler got off to as a Cardinal (he hit under .200 for almost his entire first month wearing the red) soured a lot of people on Fowler immediately. After May 1 of that year, though, he slashed .273/.378/.509 the rest of the way, in line with what the Cards wanted from him. The center field defense may not have been spectacular, but it was competent. Had Fowler built on that finish, some people that were down on him might have come around. Some people, of course, would have been anti-Fowler the rest of the way no matter.
As we all know, though, he didn’t build on 2017. 2018 was possibly the worst year we’ve seen from a regular Cardinal in a long time. He hit .180 for the season. He was moved to right field. He only played in 90 games, in part because his season was cut short with injury early in August, in part because other outfielders moved ahead of him. It got so bad that John Mozeliak, who had been a stalwart champion of Dex since they signed him, appeared to publicly question him. It was a disaster of a year, which when you are making $14.5 million, stands out even more.
Fowler rebounded in 2019 and 2020, posting exactly an average OPS+ the first year and coming close in the pandemic-scrambled second. He might have made it to average last year had he not returned from his stomach issues. Before that time, he had an OPS of .832. He only got two hits in the week-plus that he had after his return for an OPS of .322. With the limited samples in the pandemic season, that made an impact.
Did he “earn his contract”? If you go by the general metrics of assigning a market value to his wins above replacement, I would imagine not though I’ve not seen that math and I am not going to do it. The Cardinals signed Fowler to be a leadoff man and a center fielder. By the middle of the first year he wasn’t leading off (though he did some later on) and by the second year he wasn’t a center fielder.
So it’s not surprising that there’s a large part of the fanbase that always was down on Fowler. However, as a person, Fowler seemed to be exactly what you wanted as a player on your favorite team. He had a warm personality that came out on social media, when he wasn’t being harassed so much that he was locking his accounts. (One of the true losses during his time is that Cardinal fans ran Aliya Fowler off Twitter, where she was a delight.) He was a thoughtful person, expounding on the issues of the day that touched him. Before he even took the field, people were castigating him for discussing the (at the time) recent travel restrictions put in place by the president. It was an issue that hit home for him, given the nationality of his wife’s family. He spoke about how it affected him, much like he spoke out this past year about the issues facing Black men and women as protests went through the streets of the country. Perhaps it was fitting then that his last home run as a Cardinal came as he was wearing #42 on Jackie Robinson Day this past season.
Fowler had some moments with the Cardinals, though I don’t know if any of them were more memorable than his home run in the bottom of the 14th to win a rain-delayed Sunday Night Baseball game against the Cubs, the home run going right over the head of his Cardinal predecessor Jason Heyward. It was a glorious sight, even if many didn’t see it until later given it happened at like two in the morning. For me, at least, that moment will be one I always think of when I think about his time here.
That and his personality, which was always buoyant. The third reason the Cardinals signed him originally was because they believed he could inject some life into a clubhouse that had become stale and perhaps overly serious. Even as he clashed with fans and often with Mike Matheny before the latter’s removal from office, Fowler kept smiling in public at least and it always seemed like he was in good with his fellow teammates. Clubhouse presence might be overrated, but whatever weight you want to give to it, Fowler had it.
With Fowler moving on, it would seem the outfield on the regular will be Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill. Given the steadiness of the infield, it’s a strong possibility that we’ll see a very consistent lineup. The main rationale for trading Fowler was because his playing time was going to decrease as they gave more run to the young outfielders, so I don’t see them going out to get someone on the free agent market. (The fact that they are paying all but $1.75 million of Fowler’s salary this year is another reason.) There will probably be a serious competition between Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, and Austin Dean to see who is left standing without a chair this spring, but I don’t know that any of them (save maybe Thomas if he gets hot) would see a whole lot of time in the starting lineup. As my friend Josh Gilliam also pointed out, that could mean days in the outfield for Tommy Edman if Matt Carpenter is getting time at second, but I don’t expect those days to be all that regular and, if the outfield is hitting, Edman can just take a day off here and there.
What does that mean for the lineup? You could see something like this, I guess:
I’d like to see O’Neill get going well enough that DeJong slips to sixth, but overall that lineup has some potential. It’s obviously make or break year for these young outfielders, especially with some payroll freedom coming next season allowing for an addition if necessary.
We’ll have time to deal with those that are still here later on. For now, our best wishes go with Dexter Fowler as he heads out to LA, reuniting with his old manager and continuing the tradition of former Cardinals turning into Angels. Fare thee well, Mr. Fowler!