Dexter Fowler is a free agent and the St. Louis Cardinals need a center fielder. However, pursuing him would be a mistake by John Mozeliak.
The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series and the St. Louis Cardinals sat at home and watched. But that was 2016 and now all thoughts must be towards 2017. Cardinal Nation will not rest until Mike Matheny and the Cardinals reach the postseason again.
In order to do that, this offseason will require more work and attention than in previous seasons. There are substantial questions regarding the outfield, the defense, and the pitching. The outfield is full of questions since Matt Holliday is expected to not return, Brandon Moss is expected to not receive a qualifying offer, and because Randall Grichuk had an incredibly inconsistent season.
During the 2016 spring training, Grichuk was expected to be the everyday center fielder while Holliday and Stephen Piscotty manned the corners. Grichuk had one of the most volatile seasons ever as a player. He hit for a .448 ISO in the month of August but also had months where he looked lost at the plate like in June where he had a 25 wRC+.
The right handed outfielder also was inconsistent in center field. While in the minors, Grichuk seemed to fit a corner more than center field, but given their options and Grichuk’s 2015 performance, the Cardinals gave him the position in 2016. And although he wasn’t a complete liability, he had a slightly below-average Ultimate Zone Rating in center field. Overall for his career he still rates above-average but the 2016 season made the Cardinals organization rethink Grichuk’s glove in center.
Because of that, General Manager John Mozeliak has made it a point to address center field this offseason. With that said, there are two realistic options: trade or free agency. An internal option does not exist at the moment so the Cardinals will have to branch out and find someone else.
Among the free agents, Dexter Fowler stands as one of the best available center fielders. Fowler has declined his option to remain with the Chicago Cubs for 2017 and has also stated he is open to the idea of joining Cardinal Nation. In 2016, Fowler batted .276/.393/.447 with 13 home runs and 13 stolen bases.
The match of him joining the Cardinals seems perfect but it would be a mistake. Fowler won’t fix the Cardinals defensive woes and he won’t quite fit into the Cardinals lineup. A number of Cardinal Nation’s fans want Matt Carpenter to move down in the lineup so that his production goes up.
Well, that approach was attempted before and didn’t quite go as planned. Carpenter when batting in the lead-off position is hitting .295/.387/.485. When batting second in the lineup his numbers drop to .257/.350/.395. As he drops lower in the lineup, his numbers also drop. And why exactly would the Cardinals want to move one of the best lead-off hitters in the game away from that position? It’s where he is comfortable and it is the reason behind the Cardinals success. Adding Fowler to that spot and forcing Carpenter elsewhere, could potentially do more harm than good.
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Fowler also doesn’t exactly solve the Cardinals defensive woes. According to Fangraphs, Fowler had a UZR of 1.0 which is the highest of his career. Through his 8 year career, Fowler has had a positive UZR twice: the 2016 season and his rookie season in 2008 in which he only played 50.2 innings.
Grichuk produced a -0.9 UZR while manning centerfield in 2016. However, in 2014 it was 1.7 and in 2015 it was 2.4. compared to Fowler, Grichuk has a better defensive history and projects to be above average at a corner.
But if we solely focus on the 2016 season, both outfielders seemed to have an outlier of a year. Fowler credits his better defense to playing deeper while it can be argued that Grichuk’s woes came from playing too shallow. Grichuk may not be the centerfield the Cardinals want, but Fowler isn’t the answer.
In addition to that, Fowler doesn’t make sense financially. He will not be worth the substantial contract he is going to request after winning the 2016 World Series. And the Cardinals would be foolish to pay him AND lose a draft pick since he will be receiving the $17.2MM qualifying offer from the Cubs. Fowler is expected to receive a contract somewhere in the 4-5 year, $65-$80MM range. Many teams make the mistake of paying a player too much for what they already have done rather than what they will do. John Mozeliak cannot make that mistake here.
If the Cardinals do decide to sign him after he was offered the QO, they would surrender a first round draft choice. They can alter that penalty to a second round draft choice if they sign someone else before Fowler who also has a QO attached to him. The first round draft pick is quantified on it’s own to be worth about $10MM. But, the Cardinals have never signed a player with a qualifying offer attached and they’re probably not going to go out and sign two this winter.
The 2017 free agent class is pretty weak as a whole and the Cardinals have some holes to fill. But that doesn’t mean they should make a desperate attempt to fill them by signing someone that doesn’t fit the plan. Dexter Fowler is a good center fielder, but he won’t be good for the Cardinals. He isn’t the defensive player they need, he doesn’t quite fit into their offensive scheme, he is going to cost too much, and he comes with a qualifying offer attached. Fowler is not the solution in St. Louis for center field.