Editor’s note: The following post was written by Adam Felder, a guest blogger for St. Louis Bullpen whose previous work writing about the St. Louis Cardinals could be found at the blog Double Birds.
Let’s not sugarcoat this: at present, Dexter Fowler is a bad baseball player. There is no way you can squint at the .167/.270/.271 batting line, along with the poor defensive metrics (and yes, defensive metrics are generally terrible, but they’re at least usually directionally correct and it’s not as if Fowler was ever thought of as a particularly great defender) and say that his 2018 performance to date has been anything short of disastrous.
And that’s fine. I mean, it sucks for the Cardinals and it sucks for Fowler, but those are the risks when you sign a guy in free agency. Is a 32-year-old Fowler completely cooked only one season after putting up excellent offensive numbers? Probably not; it’s rare for someone to completely fall off a cliff so quickly (see Matt Carpenter’s line as of May 15 of this season). But the Cardinals have enough outfield options and are hanging on to the periphery of a playoff race that it’s completely defensible to not wait around to see if Fowler can hit his way out of his extended slump.
Benching Fowler makes sense. And all the Cardinals had to do was point at his numbers along with those of Harrison Bader and Jose Martinez (perhaps while also hiring someone to put together a RIOT.MP4-esque video reel of Martinez trying to play first base) to defend the decision.
Yet…that’s not the direction they went with. Instead, you have team president John Mozeliak dropping not-so-subtle hints that Fowler is lazy and not putting in the work. There are racist implications there, and those have been discussed repeatedly. But even if you don’t want to go down that road, consider this: Mozeliak, his weird backpedaling notwithstanding, was making a character attack against a player who is currently popular in the clubhouse and was also explicitly acquired because he’s a “character guy” who could fix a toxic/stale locker room.
Impugning Fowler’s character rings hollow in the face of literally all the evidence we have of Fowler’s previous ten years in the majors, including what Mozeliak himself has said previously. The hit job is so transparently bullshit that my initial instinct was to laugh at Mozeliak for being so stupid before I realized it fits a larger pattern in recent years: the front office can’t admit when it’s made a mistake, and will go to great lengths to make up off-field excuses to cover its ass.
It’d break my heart if the club parted ways with Fowler, but “Dexter isn’t producing the way that either he or we’d like this season. We appreciate his effort but given our other outfield options we don’t see a good fit for him here this season or in subsequent seasons, so we’re parting ways. We wish him the best going forward,” is clean, professional, and completely defensible. The goal of an MLB team is to win games, and if Fowler’s production doesn’t further that goal, you move on to the next option.
In my hypothetical quote scenario, Fowler doesn’t have his character baselessly attacked, the club doesn’t look grotesque in the national media (and I’d strongly encourage folks to read more than the Post-Dispatch’s coverage for more of an outside perspective), and the team makes it obvious that winning is their top priority.
The problem with that approach? It involves the Cardinals having to admit they made a mistake: they signed a guy entering his decline phase to a 5-year deal, and he declined faster than they’d ever expected. A club that garners praise for its skill in drafting and player acquisition suddenly gets a black eye; John Mozeliak and his crew take a reputational hit.
It fits a pattern, after all. Look back a few months when the club traded Stephen Piscotty to the Oakland Athletics. Piscotty had a terrible 2017 season–after signing your bog-standard “arbitration buyout and forfeiture of a couple years of free agency” extension at the start of the year. Did Piscotty have a lot on his mind with his mother’s illness which eventually took her life this season? Certainly. But ask yourself: would the Cardinals have traded Piscotty had his 2017 season looked like his 2015 or 2016? Almost certainly not. Ken Rosenthal, as a guest in Dan McLaughlin’s broadcast booth, said as much earlier this season.
Piscotty being moved was a function of him seemingly no longer being able to hit (his pedestrian 2018 to date sadly supports the offensive decline) coupled with him being on the books for over $30 million over the next several seasons. So what did the Cardinals do? They moved him to Oakland, where the club could cite the human interest story (which, holy crap did people ever bite on) rather than the “we screwed up when we extended this player” story. It’s not a character attack in the same way as what’s going on with Fowler, but it’s absolutely using an off-the-field story as a deflection from a failure on the part of the front office.
The same thing happened last season with Jhonny Peralta. Remember: Peralta was suspended for PED usage prior to coming to the Cardinals, and the club made a big show about how Peralta was actually a good and stand-up guy when they acquired him, and that the Cardinals weren’t the morality police. Not a character problem!
Peralta was nothing short of brilliant in his first season and a half as a Cardinal, but he never looked like the same player after suffering a thumb injury in 2015. By 2017, whether because of the thumb or because it’s pretty rare for 35-year-olds to maintain their previous production, he was cooked. Eventually, the Cardinals released him, but not before a DL stint first because he “wasn’t in shape.” The club’s messaging when Peralta was shown the door was fine, but the steps they took prior to that point absolutely weren’t–it was enough to have caught the notice of Tommy Pham, who you can always count on to give an honest assessment of how the club his behaving.
The club couldn’t get its story straight with Mike Leake, either. First it was just comments along the lines of “we wanted to give other guys priorities; this is probably a surprise.” Then, when Pham and Lance Lynn called out the front office for subtracting an MLB-quality arm in the midst of a playoff race, Mozeliak quickly switched to damage control, contradicting his own earlier statement that the move was surprising. Add in some offhand comments about Leake being weak and having body issues (Leake had shingles in 2016 and has said his last couple seasons have been physically tough), along with Leake publicly wondering why his role and future with the Cardinals wasn’t what was represented when he first signed, and you have another example of front office dishonesty when it comes to severing ties with a long-term contract.
By the way, Leake, at the time of being traded to Seattle, had an ERA+ of 101–right in line with his career ERA+ of 99. Mike Leake has been baseball’s metronome of mediocrity for ten years. His entire career line is the very definition of “average pitcher” which is precisely what he was in St. Louis. That the club decided to go out and spend $80 million over 5 years on an aggressively average pitcher who performed to his career averages only to have buyer’s remorse a year and a half in is damning for Mozeliak, not Leake.
You can even make a case that the club is doing the exact thing right now with Brett Cecil, he of the WHIP near 1.7 and the $15 million remaining over two seasons after this one. I don’t personally think it’s anywhere near the level of what’s been done to Fowler, but one of the normally-anodyne Cards beat writers thinks that Mozeliak saying Cecil hasn’t been the “person” (as opposed to “player”) they expected when they signed him is a character attack. You have to squint to see it in comparison to the giant dogwhistle in Fowler’s situation, but I guess “you’re not the person I thought” could refer to off-field character whereas “you’re not the player I thought” is strictly a baseball card numbers kind of thing.
The team has made a lot of bad long-term investments of late, and rather than admitting to it and moving on, it’s deflecting. It’s gross and unprofessional.
And new, I think. I don’t remember this happening during the Ty Wigginton experience or when a brutally unproductive Mark Ellis was still somehow taking playing time from Kolten Wong. Or when the club inexplicably gave Jonathan Broxton a two-year deal when he was so obviously finished by the end of 2015.
I don’t think it’s because these were shorter (and smaller financially) deals. Jake Westbrook, who was basically really bad and a fringe-y #5 starter at best, was allowed to finish out his Cardinals contract and even start the final game of the 2013 season (which could’ve determined home field advantage throughout the playoffs; I remember being mad about him getting the ball at the time). Similarly, Kyle Lohse, who was terrible for about a season and a half before having motocross surgery, seemed to remain in the club’s good graces, and he was on a 4-year deal.
The obvious exception to this, of course, is Adam Wainwright, who is in his third straight season of terrible pitching. Whether because the Achilles injury so obviously bookends “bad pitcher” from “All-Star” or because Waino’s been a Cardinals mainstay for over a decade, he thankfully hasn’t gotten the same treatment. But he’s the exception of late, not the rule.
Perhaps it’s because the team isn’t winning anymore and the front office is eager to deflect blame from putting together another disappointing on-field product. Maybe it’s exacerbated by the fact that not only is the team not winning, but that it’s losing to the Cubs. Or perhaps it’s because the front office’s biggest news of the last few years was the stupid hacking scandal with the Astros–a team whose fortunes have moved in the opposite direction of the Cardinals ever since Jeff Luhnow left St. Louis for Houston.
But whatever it is, it’s a pattern: the front office is unwilling to admit its most expensive mistakes, and will turn to character assassination io further that goal. Perhaps that’s why it still employs its biggest mistake, Mike Matheny. Players talk to one another and surely aren’t blind to what’s been going on in St. Louis of late. Is it any wonder, then, that the club can’t attract top talent?