There is a veteran outfielder available this off-season who, in 2018, had a .253 batting average, a .341 on-base percentage, and a .370 slugging percentage. His .712 OPS (a point higher than adding his OBP and SLG due to rounding errors) is just ahead of Kevin Pillar, who had an OPS+ of 93 at a similar moderate pitcher’s park. This veteran’s defense is not a strength, but he does have recent experience both in center field and in a corner spot. Additionally, he is a very intelligent base runner–he isn’t Billy Hamilton, but he has been a plus runner in all but one season of his career.
Are you excited about your favorite team acquiring this player? Probably not. He has on-base skill but not a ton of power–his .117 isolated power limits his upside. But you also probably wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be outraged if your favorite team took a flyer on him, say, as a fourth outfielder. Obviously he isn’t Bryce Harper, but he isn’t the worst use of a few million bucks, either.
This veteran outfielder’s statistics are what Dexter Fowler would have produced last season if instead of a .210 batting average on balls in play, Fowler had sported the .310 BABIP he had in 2017, and in turn, 21 of the outs he made in 2018 on balls put in play turned into singles. A .310 BABIP was actually on the lower side for Fowler’s career, though a player’s BABIP declining into his thirties isn’t a huge surprise. A player coming to bat 334 times in a season and having a .210 BABIP is borderline inconceivable.
To be clear, there was cause for concern beyond BABIP luck. Most notably, Dexter Fowler’s 2017 power surge, in which he hit a career high 18 home runs, completely reversed itself in 2018, in which Fowler hit home runs at his lowest rate since 2014. Fowler walked at his lowest rate since 2010 while his strikeout rate increased. But it was bad luck which turned Fowler’s 2018 from “moderate sophomore slump” to “absolute disaster.” Of the 278 players in Major League Baseball with 300 or more plate appearances in 2018, Dexter Fowler’s BABIP ranked 276th.
With Fowler’s 2018 statistics adjusted for a more normal BABIP, his triple-slash line with the Cardinals comes out to .260/.354/.440. His .794 OPS over the last two seasons puts him on par with Eduardo Escobar. Fowler’s wRC+ over this two-year period with these numbers is in the neighborhood of 110. This is a perfectly acceptable mark for a right fielder who can also play in center field. This is a valuable player.
For the last two years, particularly in his awful 2018, Dexter Fowler has been continuously evaluated in the context of his contract, a five-year, $82.5 million one signed before the 2017 season. But with his contract fully guaranteed, there isn’t much practical value in this. Would I sign Dexter Fowler to a three-year, $49.5 million contract (the remainder left to be paid to him)? Even while fully acknowledging that Fowler isn’t likely to remain as unlucky as he has so far in St. Louis, I would not. But it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done, and Dexter Fowler is a Cardinal.
What Dexter Fowler’s role will be with the Cardinals in 2019 has been a topic of much discussion this off-season, and barring a major change in the team’s outfield personnel, it will likely remain so into the season. And while Fowler’s contract makes him a lightning rod for fans (a group which largely now wants to give a blank check to Bryce Harper, but that’s a separate issue), his contract also ought not earn him bonus points for playing time, aside from perhaps that it represents his track record. If the choice is between a player making $16.5 million and a player making the league minimum, the better player ought to play more. It doesn’t matter which one it is–the cost will remain the same.
The Cardinals outfield options are full of question marks. The “safe” player is Marcell Ozuna, who struggled throughout much of last season before eventually getting back on track for an adequate but nevertheless disappointing 106 wRC+. Harrison Bader, the second-most likely starting outfielder of the bunch, had a terrific rookie season, matching Ozuna’s 106 wRC+ but with Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field and premium base running, but he also came somewhat out of nowhere. Steamer projects Bader for substantial regression–a 92 wRC+ with merely positive base running and very good but not otherworldly defense; this puts Bader is just a touch above league-average, which is fine provided that he matches or exceeds his projection. Tyler O’Neill flashed excellent power and surprising competence in center field, but his 4.9% walk rate and 40.1% strikeout rate in the big leagues, though quite a bit more extreme than his minor league numbers, are cause for some concern. And Jose Martinez, while an offensive revelation since joining the Cardinals, has been a horrendous fielder.
Trading Dexter Fowler (assuming he would be willing to waive his no-trade clause) would, at this point, require the Cardinals to pay a substantial portion of his remaining salary. And selling low on Dexter Fowler simply doesn’t make a ton of sense. If a suitor is willing to pay the majority of his salary, sure, but this is very unlikely. But Fowler’s stock is almost certainly going to increase in 2019, even in the (likely) event that he is now a worse player than he was in 2017. Giving away a fourth former starting outfielder in the course of one year (following Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Tommy Pham) after a down season only makes sense if that outfielder doesn’t have a role.
Marcell Ozuna will be a free agent after this season, and in the event that he leaves, the Cardinals don’t sign Bryce Harper this off-season, and Dexter Fowler is given away via trade, the Cardinals’ outfield depth looks potentially disastrous in its shallowness. Even if Tyler O’Neill becomes mini-Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader becomes the NL’s Kevin Kiermaier, the Cardinals would be depending on a wrong-side-of-thirty Jose Martinez to stumble around in the outfield. Or perhaps Adolis Garcia, who was a below-average hitter in Memphis last season. Or perhaps the Cardinals will be forced to spend big on a good-not-great free agent and repeat the Dexter Fowler life cycle again.
If the Cardinals insist on trading an outfielder (which I wouldn’t do until another outfielder is acquired, which may or may not happen), I would prefer it be Jose Martinez for a simple reason–I believe his value has peaked. He is unlikely to improve substantially as a hitter nor develop beyond anything better than good-enough as a fielder. Martinez will become arbitration eligible after this season, which will further diminish his value. Meanwhile, Dexter Fowler has nowhere to go but up. The benefit to trading Dexter Fowler is almost zero, while Jose Martinez could at least garner a relief pitcher or competent prospect.