As is one of the oldest traditions in baseball, the Cardinals and Cubs have swapped players. Jon Jay, member of the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals, signed for a year with the Cubs to ping-pong in center field with Albert Almora. The Cardinals decided, “If you’re taking one of our World Series champs, we’re taking one of yours.” (Not really, but it would be fabulous if they were actually so petty.)
St. Louis signed Dexter Fowler, center fielder and leadoff man extraordinaire, through the 2021 season for $82.5 million. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak previously said he wants the team to be more “athletic” and more “exciting,” and Fowler fits that bill rather well.
Initially, this may seem overpriced, because they signed him through his age-36 season and one of the primary motivators was speed. There will be a decline, perhaps a significant one, toward the end of this contract. However, the Cardinals want to change the aesthetic of their team right now, and this is the best deal available to make that shift happen. There are four reasons the Fowler signing works for the Cardinals:
The Cardinals were 29th in total stolen bases and all-around bad at baserunning. Mozeliak even said, “When you keep running into outs, that’s dumb.” Which led to this assessment during the offseason:
Matheny says they will go back to drawing board and go over the basics of base running. @Cardinals @KSDKSports— Frank Cusumano (@Frank_Cusumano) December 6, 2016
In 2016, the Cardinal with the highest BsR was Randal Grichuk (2.4 runs above average). Grichuk, along with Kolten Wong (1.8 BsR), spent signficant time in Triple A last season. Their best baserunners were not doing a good enough job of getting on base. This signing is the response to those stats, and hopefully a catalyst for other players’ improvement.
Dexter Fowler’s BsR this past season was 6.2. (That score alone is better than the Cardinals’ #1 baserunner + their #2 baserunner + their #3 baserunner.) Fowler is smart on the bases, he is speedy, and he is a huge upgrade over everyone the Cardinals had on the basepaths in 2016.
2. Center field (speed)
St. Louis made no hint of their #1 priority this offseason: a center fielder. Randal Grichuk is perfectly competent in center, but the Cards chose not to pick up Matt Holliday’s option in favour of moving Grichuk to left field. When Mozeliak said he wanted an “athletic” outfield, he meant speed in the outfield, something Holliday does not have in his toolbox.
Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty will now be the corner outfielders, who had Speed scores of 5.0 (3rd on the team) and 4.1 (5th on the team) respectively. Dexter Fowler will be in center, with a score of 6.5. His Speed score is equivalent to Randal Grichuk plus Matt Holliday, in addition to being the seventh-highest among qualified hitters. Fowler is exactly the upgrade the cardinals wanted.
3. A leadoff man
As @dgoold notes, Fowler was No. 1 and Carpenter No. 2 among lead-off hitters in MLB; now together. #STLCards— John Stamm (@stammtheman) December 9, 2016
Of the qualified leadoff hitters in 2016, Dexter Fowler was first in OBP (.393) and Matt Carpenter was second (.386). Those two got on base more than any other leadoff batters, so now there are two on-base machines at the top of the Cardinals lineup. Of the qualified players who bat second in the lineups, Carpenter’s .386 OBP would still rank 2nd in baseball (Josh Donaldson led with .397).
Not to mention, Matt Carpenter leads the Cardinals in offense by a mile. His Off runs on Fangraphs is 21.6, while the next-closest player is Aledmys Diaz with 15.1. His 135 wRC+ also tops the team. Matt Carpenter is the Cardinals’ best offensive weapon, so it will be helpful to have someone get on base in front of him.
As evidenced by the Nationals sending a massive prospect haul to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton, trading for an outfielder in this market is costly. Inquiries involving outfield trades would almost certainly have required Alex Reyes. (He ranked #2 on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects list.) The Cardinals have labelled him all but untouchable, citing significant pitching “gaps” behind him in the farm system. Signing Fowler allowed the Cardinals to get the outfielder they needed while keeping Alex Reyes.
To summarize, Dexter Fowler is a “kill three birds with one stone” kind of upgrade, while allowing the Cardinals to keep their top prospect. They got a center fielder, a leadoff man, and a good baserunner. This one signing allows the Cardinals to go from a team that hits home runs to a team that can steal bases, changing the focus from power to speed. If one player can emphasize budding qualities in a team like Dexter Fowler can in St. Louis, it is a good deal.
. . .
Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.