St. Louis Cardinals: Dexter Fowler shift helps player and team

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Dexter Fowler #25 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on from the dugout in the seventh inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 23, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Dexter Fowler #25 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on from the dugout in the seventh inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 23, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Dexter Fowler, whose contract will in all likelihood keep him as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals for 2018, had an impressive, though flawed, debut with the club. But there’s a way he can be considerably better in the upcoming season.

The St. Louis Cardinals have been faced with seemingly endless remakes of their outfield over the past several seasons, and for a variety of reasons.

The most tragic was of course the loss of Oscar Taveras, who died in 2014 at this time of year in an auto accident in his native Dominican Republic. The team had pinned high hopes on Taveras, who was a top-five minor league prospect and who could well have had the capacity to hold down center or right field for a decade or more for the Redbirds.

But the Cards have had their share of other plights in the outfield as well:

  • Tommy Pham, who had an all-world 2017, struggled for years with a chronic eye condition and injuries.
  • Matt Holliday completed his seven-year contract and was let go to pursue other options.
  • Randal Grichuk has been up and down, both in performance and his shuffle between minors and majors.
  • And Stephen Piscotty was expected to be the right field answer before his anemic 2017.

Dexter Fowler came into the Cards organization fresh off a World Series title in Chicago and apparently the heir apparent to the center-field throne. But that anointment came with a caveat: he really wasn’t a particularly great center fielder.

That’s no big change from Fowler’s entire career, whether in Colorado, Houston, or Chicago. The large majority of his seasons have seen him in negative dWAR territory. In fact, a career oWAR of 27.2 is accompanied by a dWAR of -5.5, resulting in an overall WAR of 19.7 (don’t try to do the subtraction; oWAR and dWAR do not add up to total WAR).

He really wasn’t a particularly great center fielder.

Perhaps the insistence on Dex as a center fielder has been based on the above-average speed in his quiver of skills, speed that has produced 134 stolen bases over ten seasons. But no matter what reason is posited for the cognitive dissonance, the numbers speak for themselves: he simply doesn’t add value at the position, and certainly detracts from what he could provide if shifted to a place on the diamond where he is not required to excel defensively.

I’ve written speculatively about how that could be a switch to first base, but in reality, a change to left field is much more likely. With the Cards having other assets who can better patrol the center, a move for Fowler will help not only the team but him personally.

Truth be told, at an overall average of almost 3 oWAR per season as a hitter, Fowler is an extremely useful offensive threat for a winning major league team. And his history is remarkably consistent in that regard.

Dex is one of those guys whose offensive game and performance hasn’t suffered a bit after being removed from the friendly hitting confines of Coors Field. In fact, his oWAR last season was better than in four out of five of his Colorado years.

But it gets even better because his 18 home run total last year in Busch Stadium exceeded his season high, after years in Colorado, Houston, and Chicago’s North Side. His OPS+ last year, almost identical to that of his single season at Wrigley, comprised an ideal combination of strong on-base and slug skills, without striking out excessively and keeping up high walk totals.

One can debate where he fits on the diamond, and in fact, where he fits in the batting order. Some say he remains a strong leadoff candidate; others see him further down. A lot of that will depend on who the St. Louis Cardinals actually have on Opening Day of 2018 after any trades and/or free agent signings have reshaped the club.

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So absent defense, what is left is an extremely strong offensive asset. Maybe not at the level of the top bats in the National League, but at the next tier down? Sure. How many teams in the NL will consciously leave an .850 OPS guy off the most-days lineup? One has to have an exceptionally deep roster to do so, or the player has to have some really, really bad defensive skills. Like, you might argue, Kyle Schwarber.

But in center, Fowler had even worse dWAR than did Schwarber in left. To which we can all say: Ughhhhhhh.

Still, Fowler in left is a much more palatable proposition. He didn’t take so many accurate paths to balls; his speed can be of use; and his throws needn’t come from the same distance as in center. All in all, his ability to man the corner should be vastly simpler and not nearly the hit on his value as his defense is in the middle.

I’m all for Dexter Fowler being the everyday, switch-hitting left fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018. Where he bats, I’m willing to wait on and evaluate based on the roster.

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With the shift alone, I think he can make the team a game or two more valuable next season. If we can replicate that at even three or four other positions, then the playoffs appear a far more likely outcome for this team.