*photo taken by: @kat_allen311
With the recent trade for Marcell Ozuna, and the 2017 emergence of Tommy Pham, it stands that Dexter Fowler will be the least anticipated outfielder for the Cardinals in 2018. That's an interesting turn of events since just over a year ago when he was the team's big acquisition when they signed him to a five-year contract worth over $80 million. That is both a lot of money - because it's over $80 million - and a pretty reasonable sum in 2017 for a player entering his age-31 season, who was also coming off his best season in what had already been a perfectly fine career.
I supported the signing. I thought the Cardinals needed a real lead-off threat to force Matt Carpenter to a spot in the lineup more suitable for his newfound power. Plus, the Cardinals needed a boost and some stability in center field after a various assortment of birds turned in a 94 wRC+ at the position in 675 plate appearances in 2016. And Fowler had been an integral member of the Cubs' championship team, and though it's probably not wise to look over your shoulder too much at the competition when constructing a lineup, the thought of weakening the front runner while improving in-house with one move was pretty enticing.
Focusing first on that last point, there's an argument that the Fowler signing did just that. In 2016, the Cubs slashed .267/.381/.434 in 772 plate appearances from the leadoff spot, good for a 122 wRC+. Fowler was responsible for 546 of those plate appearances, and had a 128 wRC+ in that role. Last season the Cubs hit .246/.324/.422 from the leadoff spot in 767 plate appearances with a wRC+ (94) that ranked in the bottom half of the league. That was partly due to them sticking with the Kyle Schwarber experiment at leadoff for too long but they never quite found their guy and by season's end familiar face Jon Jay saw the most time at the top spot.
In the center field position vacated in Chicago by Fowler, same story. In 2016, the Cubs had 123 wRC+-type production from the center field position, most of that from Fowler. In 2017 that number dropped to 101, with a committee of mostly Jay, Albert Almora, Jr., and Ian Happ handling the job. Now, the Cubs were obviously still a very good baseball team, they were still the best team in the NL Central by considerable margin, and they still made their third straight NLCS. And if Joe Maddon wants to point to a "World Series hangover" as the reason why they won 11 fewer games and had a run differential cut in half from 2016 then he's certainly qualified to argue that case, but I'd sooner point to a lineup that simply wasn't as potent (although I'd probably first point to their unbelievable run prevention numbers in 2016, which were due to regress).
So the Cubs got a bit worse, arguably due to the Cardinals poaching one of their key players. As for Fowler being that elusive leadoff man to displace Carpenter, before the season began I had dreams of a Fowler-Carpenter-Aledmys Diaz 1-2-3 punch wreaking havoc and driving opposing pitchers' pitch counts up and we all know how that worked out. By mid-season Carpenter was back at leadoff, Diaz was in Memphis, and Fowler was bouncing around at spots two through four in the lineup. Fortunately, with regard to Fowler that was okay because he had career-high power numbers (home runs, ISO, slugging), which is not uncommon for a player of his profile settling in on the other side of 30.
With regard to stability at center field, it sounds as though Tommy Pham will begin the 2018 season in center so similar to Fowler being a mainstay at the top of the lineup, that part of the equation never quite came to fruition. I don't want to get into whatever the advanced defensive metrics said about Fowler's play in 2017 since it was a single season and parsing through UZR and the like is neither my specialty nor interest, but if you watched enough games it was clear that Fowler wasn't exactly prime-Andruw Jones. There was a lot of noise last off-season that the Cubs had solved Fowler's defensive issues with better positioning leading him to grade out around average in 2016. Whether that secret sauce couldn't be replicated in St. Louis or, more likely, that it was never quite as simple as positioning, a move to one of the corner spots should help maximize his value. And if last season's welcoming power numbers were not a fluke, his bat should play just fine there.
So the early returns on the signing look good - certainly adequate - just maybe not for the reasons that a lot of us had initially expected.
I highlight this because there's been insinuations that Fowler's first season was a disappointment. First, from some fans, who expected superstar play from a contract that was never superstar-like. Or, more reasonably, fans who are weary of the injuries that limited Fowler to just 118 games, and ensured that he still has only one season on the books of 600+ plate appearances. That's a fair concern.
But there also been some rumblings in the media that Fowler isn't meshing with the team. In early October, Post-Dispatch columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz noted that "... teammates hardly ever bother to notice or even care if Dexter Fowler is usually the last guy in the clubhouse and one of the first to leave." Ortiz left that image of Fowler being last in, first out hanging there without clarifying whether that information was relayed to him by other players in the clubhouse, or if it was his own personal observation - a distinction that I think absolutely matters. Nevertheless, that's at the very least "smoke," and perhaps cause for alarm.
Then, last week Jon Heyman reported that Fowler was seen as a potential trade piece leading up to the Giancarlo Stanton sweepstakes. This information was sourced to the indispensable "some people." Heyman mentioned Toronto as a possible landing spot. A few days later, based on Heyman's article, the same news outlet contemplated Fowler's future and columnist Ryan Davis noted, "... there have been rumblings that some within the organization weren’t always thrilled with Fowler," and cited to the aforementioned article by Ortiz.
A couple of things: First, Heyman made no mention of Fowler's full no-trade clause in his contract. And while there's recent precedent with Mike Leake, who had a full NTC and still accepted a trade to the non-contending Mariners last summer, the Blue Jays are not likely to compete with the Red Sox and the Yankees in the AL East in 2018, and it's hard for me to fathom Fowler agreeing to a move up north. Second, and I want to be clear that I'm reading the same tea leaves as most of you, and unlike Ortiz, Heyman, or Davis, I don't have inside access. If Fowler is/was unhappy in St. Louis then Ortiz is certainly a qualified source on that front whereas I am not. That disclaimer out of the way, the "Is Fowler on the outs with the Cardinals?" meme feels more like circular reporting than anything based in substance, and I'd earnestly welcome any information to the contrary.
So given all of that, Fowler's 2017 season with the Cardinals earned a passing grade even though he wasn't quite the player a lot of us envisioned. Not worse, just different. Now, at a bare minimum you hope for good things from the first of a five-year contract so we'll see how we feel about it two or three years from now. But until then, and assuming Fowler is willing to move to a corner spot in the outfield, he, Pham and Ozuna have the potential to be one of the more exciting outfields in the league. And until I hear solid evidence to the contrary, I'm discounting any Fowler trade-talk or "Fowler is disgruntled" as just off-season noise.