*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.