A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Cardinals’ then-General-Manager, now-President-of-Baseball-Operations John Mozeliak.
It was an experience I was pretty geeked about as a college student. I was just starting to learn the ins and outs of advanced statistics and I saw Mo as the SABR nerd lord of my favorite team. He had successfully led the Cardinals through the waning of the MV3/Jocketty years and introduced a new era of sterling player development and sustained excellence through the early 2010s. He had failed to resign Albert Pujols, but it was already understood that missing on Pujols was seen as more of a boon to the franchise than a missed opportunity.
Questions about him had begun to surface at this point. His hesitancy in spending money for big-name free agents and seeming loyalty to and hiring of Mike Matheny were the two big ones. But neither of these mattered to me, the starstruck super fan. In my eyes, John Mozeliak was The Man With the Plan.
On Monday, Mozeliak made his regular appearance on Fox Sports Midwest broadcaster Dan McLaughlin’s podcast. McLaughlin, underrated journalist that he is, asked some questions about the state of the team that had just been swept at home by the Atlanta Braves. Mozeliak obliged with some very… truthful answers when asked about struggling right fielder Dexter Fowler.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level. Those are things I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone who’s out there hustling and playing hard. Really, everyone needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. And in Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody. I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future and really just decide what makes the most sense. But clearly, he’s not playing at the level we’d hoped.”
This, as you can imagine, did not go over well on Twitter, especially when the Cubs blogosphere got a hold of it and, well… I guess there’s no clever way to put it, but when Dexter started liking said tweets and articles.
Now, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, there are different ways to read what Mozeliak said. Let’s look at them and assign each a percentage based on how close it is to the likely truth.
- Mozeliak could be saying, quite honestly, he is not able to defend Fowler’s hustle and effort because he isn’t able to give an honest assessment of either. As PBO, he probably has some say in how often Fowler plays, but if the manager – the writer of every day’s lineup – feels someone is better suited to play because of a perceived lack of effort, Mozeliak is not in a position to change his mind (10%).
- Mozeliak could be saying that Fowler is lazy and has not shown good work ethic during his time in St. Louis. He could defend extra opportunities to play Fowler, but he doesn’t feel they’re justified based on the effort he’s seen from other players. This convergence of feelings and assumptions means Fowler is likely to be headed somewhere else in the near future (15%).
- Mozeliak could be saying he believes Fowler needs more playing time to get things going, but does think there are other players who are out-working him based on what he’s seen and heard around the organization. He’s hoping to get a sense of how Fowler is feeling about his place in the organization soon, but he does believe some sort of reset is in order at this point in the season (75%).
Really, you could combine any amount of those three readings and probably create further analysis, but I feel like those are three baseline interpretations.
Here are a few notes about Mozeliak’s comments, no matter how you choose to interpret them.
- Mo is not in a place – be it by organization hierarchy or personal reflection – where he’s comfortable defending the “effort and energy level,” two very personal and subjectives attributes, of Dexter Fowler.
- His exclusion of Fowler from the subset of, “someone who’s out there hustling and playing hard,” is somewhat alarming. At best, it’s a miscalculated statement that unwittingly throws one of his players under the bus. At worst, it’s a very calculated, very passive criticism.
- He isn’t aware of where Fowler fits with the future of the organization, and isn’t really aware of how Fowler feels either.
All of those notes, along with the most middling reading of his comments, suggest this TL;DR (and more direct) version of John Mozeliak’s comments:
“To be honest, I’m not seeing a lot of hustle out of Dexter Fowler, and other people are asking me about it. He should probably get more of an opportunity to play his way out of this slump, but there are a few other guys we’d rather see out there. We’d love to see him play better, but if he doesn’t, we’ve got to see if there are better options for both parties.”
That’s a problematic statement, whether or not you agree with its content. I’m not sure what Mozeliak thought he would gain, even if he had the best of intentions… which I guess maybe were to motivate a slumping player? If so it’s certainly time to call out some other figures in the Cardinal clubhouse…
Dexter Fowler has already been subject to a strange and difficult time in St. Louis. The perception of St. Louis fans as some caricature of racist meth addicts (shouts to the GOAT Cardinals tweet) was met with quick criticisms of the Fowler family’s politics, a prolonged amateur sociological diagnosis of African-American athletes in St. Louis, open and direct criticism from St. Louis media and, most recently, the Fowlers deleting their Twitter accounts entirely.
If those events show us anything, it’s that Twitter is truly the swamp of the internet and should be scourged post haste. But what they should show John Mozeliak specifically is that Fowler is clearly viewed as a volatile figure at the crossroads of social politics and St. Louis baseball. Any comments regarding or involving Fowler should probably be dealt with far from any public forum, or at least with extremely careful consideration. Mozeliak’s statement on Monday – and Fowler’s reaction through Twitter-sleuthing – show a stunning lack (on Mo’s part) of both decorum and, more importantly, respect for Fowler as a human being.
When I met John Mozeliak a few years ago, he came across as a really nice, personable guy. He didn’t have to spend the time he did watching a few innings of baseball – and dishing surprisingly candid information about behind-the-scenes stuff – with some random college kid. But he did, and I’ve been a big fan ever since.
Well, until Monday, that is. And no, the fact that Mozeliak discussed the comments with Fowler after the fact doesn’t really change anything.
My thoughts about the Cardinals’ analytics-loving, glasses-wearing baseball nerd have fluctuated over the past few years. I still remember the time where John Mozeliak took time out of his day to be very nice to me, and hold a small sense of personal investment in his well-being. But I also understand the criticisms that are starting to pile up: the poor roster construction that relies heavily on young depth, while being saddled with several questionable contracts; the lack of urgency to right a franchise that once blossomed under his leadership, but has been slipping for the past few years; and the dedication to a manager who has essentially refused to become a better baseball tactician.
The Dexter Fowler situation may have finally shed the scales from my eyes. Like Mozeliak, I too am frustrated about Fowler’s production. I understand the questions about his dedication to turning his season around, because they’re the same questions I’d have about any successful player who seemingly fell off a cliff.
But to question his work ethic in this specific era of Cardinal baseball, when a culture of failure and inconsistency sets in because of management’s refusal to better itself… that seems like something else entirely. That feels more like petty nitpicking – and maybe even something worse – than a desire to really, “take a hard look in the mirror,” and figure out what ails this dysfunctional franchise.