The St. Louis Cardinals’ signing of Dexter Fowler in the 2016-17 off-season will not exactly go down as one of the most prudent free agent signings of all-time, but at the end of the day, Dexter Fowler did fill a role for the Cardinals. Maybe not a $16.5 million per season role, but a role nonetheless. Over the course of his four seasons with the Cardinals, Fowler was an exactly average hitter by wRC+, and while his defense did not match his production in his prior two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, it was more or less commensurate with his prior history in the field. One could grade the signing a D and I wouldn’t be able to put up too much of a fight (I’d lean towards C-minus territory, personally). It wasn’t an F. It wasn’t Chris Davis or Miguel Cabrera-level bad.
Dexter Fowler was signed to be an average Major League outfielder, and while he wasn’t even that, he wasn’t done any favors by being frequently miscast as a more significant piece of the puzzle than he ever should have been. Especially by 2021, the expectation should have always been that Dexter Fowler would be a declining veteran no longer worth what he was making, but that hopefully he was worth the money in his earlier seasons to make up for it (his truly dreadful 2018 season, which inspired the most-read article in the history of this website, made this nearly impossible). Before Thursday’s trade which sent Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels, he was likely the team’s fourth outfielder, and this wasn’t radically different than what he was projected to be four years earlier.
The trade, which sent an essentially worthless Player To Be Named Later to St. Louis, was more or less a salary dump by the Cardinals, with the Cardinals paying all but $1.75 million of Fowler’s 2021 salary. The Angels were motivated buyers of Fowler because of a desire to keep young outfielder Jo Adell in the minor leagues for further development, while the Cardinals were motivated sellers because of a desire to keep their younger outfielder in a Major League lineup. With Fowler gone, the projected starting outfield of the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals will be Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson.
Fowler, besides being eight to 12 1/2 years older than the trio, is different from them in the sense that the Cardinals know with relative certainty who he is. Fowler is an okay hitter, with a good batting eye, decent power, declining speed, and his days of playing an average-ish defensive center field are likely over. The range of outcomes for Fowler is relatively narrow–if he were more than a win or so away from replacement level, that would be pretty surprising. I am describing the type of player who gets around $2 million on a one-year free agent deal in a free agency climate which is increasingly indifferent to non-elite talent. This is why there is no need to be exhilerated nor apoplectic about the trade. It is truly one of the most boring trades one could possibly imagine.
But what Fowler provided, even if in a bench role, even if there are far better uses for $14.5 million, was the element of the known. For better or worse–and I would argue mostly the better–the newfangled Cardinals outfield, none of whom are older than 26 years old, is less known.
Tyler O’Neill looks like a power hitter and in some ways he plays like one (28 home runs per 600 plate appearances isn’t exactly nothing), but his skill set is a little all over the place. He is a rock-solid defensive outfielder, winning a Gold Glove in left field in 2020 with good reason; if the Cardinals didn’t have Harrison Bader already, O’Neill could be trusted in center given his speed. But he also doesn’t draw a ton of walks and strikes out far more than ideal (though he is improving in those regards). His batting average on balls in play last season was unsustainably low, but his marks in previous seasons, where he wasn’t exactly a superstar at the plate either, were unsustainably high.
Harrison Bader is a superb defensive outfielder–I would rather watch Harrison Bader play defense than watch any member of the Cardinals do any one thing with the possible exception of watching Jack Flaherty pitch. But his offense is less dependable–in the 2019 season, he played Gold Glove-caliber defense but was so awful at the plate that he was demoted to the Memphis Redbirds. Bader strikes out at O’Neill-like rates and doesn’t have the power to justify it.
Dylan Carlson arrived in St. Louis as the most celebrated Cardinals hitting prospect since Oscar Taveras, but in his first 119 plate appearances, he was spotty at best. You may have noticed a recurring theme of the Cardinals outfield being full of offensively shaky, great defensive players, and in an admittedly very small sample last season, Dylan Carlson was indeed this–a 65 wRC+ with a nearly 30% strikeout rate is far below expectations.
In the case of Carlson in particular, it’s far too early to assume this guy simply can’t cut it in the big leagues. But it’s also shortsighted to assume that his production will most certainly turn around. In all three of these cases, there is potential for greatness, or at least very good-ness. But in all three of these cases, there is also potential to be completely lost at the plate. Dexter Fowler’s potential in 2021 is nowhere near that of any of these three outfielders, but he also is the player of the three who has been the best hitter in a Cardinals uniform. Even if you were to believe that O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson had a good chance individually of breaking out, if all three don’t, the Cardinals have a thin roster of outfield security with Fowler out of the picture.
The Cardinals have three more outfielders on the 40-man roster: Austin Dean, Lane Thomas, and Justin Williams. Dean, 27, has a 77 wRC+ in 318 career MLB plate appearances and is viewed so highly in the sport that the Miami Marlins deemed him not good enough. Thomas, 25, has been a league-average hitter in AAA and while he has hit reasonably well in St. Louis, this is only over 84 total plate appearances. And Justin Williams, also 25, has seven career MLB plate appearances. None of these three players are any less risky than the incumbent group.
As much fun as a Marcell Ozuna reunion in St. Louis would be, this seems very unlikely–he will want a substantial salary, and with good reason, but his lack of defensive prowess also would make him a somewhat awkward fit with a team that, even if the designated hitter returns for 2021, will likely want to hide Matt Carpenter in the spot. Jackie Bradley Jr. has nearly the opposite problem of Ozuna–he’s a very good two-way outfielder, but given that his main strength is his defense in center field, he would be miscast if the outfielder he needs to replace is O’Neill or Carlson rather than Bader. Brett Gardner is a free agent, but I can’t imagine him playing anywhere but with the New York Yankees–maybe this is a logical fallacy, but it makes my brain hurt to even ponder. Yasiel Puig is a player I wanted the Cardinals to consider last off-season before the world fell apart, but any questions they had about him are even more intense after he missed the entire 2020 season.
So I think I’ve talked myself into Shin-Soo Choo. He’s 38 years old, so he’s extremely not young, and he’s always been a pretty lousy fielder. But last year was Choo’s first below-average “full” season at the plate, and 1. He still had a 97 wRC+, and 2. Choo has been a full-time Major League player since 2008, so this isn’t exactly small sample enamorment. And for one year as a guy on the bench? I can think of worse ways to spend the scraps you got back for Dexter Fowler.
I’m not expecting anyone to get too excited about Shin-Soo Choo, and I’m not even sure that I’m excited about him. But while the Cardinals could have a very exciting outfield in 2021, they are also playing with fire, and an unexciting veteran on a cheap one-year deal could be the proper extinguisher.