Ten thoughts on the Cardinals' signing of Dexter Fowler, from a diehard Cardinals fan.
1. The Cardinals really had no choice here. If anything laid the groundwork for the Cards to shell out the reported five-year, $90 million deal for Fowler, it was the Nationals' trade with the White Sox for Adam Eaton. St. Louis had interest in Eaton, but if the market for a player who is not quite as good as Fowler (albeit younger) was Lucas Giolito and another prospect, well, free agency it is. The Cardinals have some position players coming through the pipeline, but they're not ready and not good enough to get much for them just yet, and general manager John Mozeliak was not trading Alex Reyes. So the only way the Cards were going to improve their outfield was by paying for Fowler. Thus, they did.
2. The Cardinals remain the best at keeping secrets. After a Winter Meetings full of leaks and innuendo, the Cardinals remained silent about their intentions. Remember two years ago, when the team made the trade for Jason Heyward and literally announced it on its Twitter feed, before any reporter had even sniffed out the possibility? Same thing here: The only reason word about Fowler's signing got out was because somebody saw him on a plane to St. Louis.
Credit to the #STLCards for keeping things close to the vest. Seems like their major signings always leak out when player spotted at airport- Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) December 9, 2016
3. The deal is massive, less for the money than the years. All told, $16 million a year for Fowler is not an insane amount. That's just $1 million more than the Cardinals will be paying Mike Leake next year. It's the five years that stings. Fowler is being signed in large part because he can play center field, but do you think a 35-year-old Fowler is really going to be able to play center in 2021? The Cardinals have some outfield prospects coming, guys who could man center down the line (Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra), but is Fowler as valuable if he has to be moved to left or right? 2021 Dexter Fowler is going to look a lot different than 2016 Dexter Fowler.
4. He's such a perfect fit right now. Fowler fits just about everything the Cardinals need. He plays center fielder. He's a switch hitter. He can steal bases. Most important, he gets on base and can leadoff, which allows Matt Carpenter to move to second or even third in the order. Suddenly the top of the Cardinals order looks pretty scary: Two of the top 12 OBP hitters in the National League may be hitting in the first two spots in the order.
5. Cardinals fans are going to love him. There had been some talk that the fun-loving Fowler had some reservations with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and the buttoned-up Cardinals vibe -- this was also part of the "Jason Heyward is telling Dexter Fowler that it's not as much of a part in St. Louis as it was in Joe Maddon's Play Land and Bouncy Castle Jamboroo" theorem -- but this is precisely the sort of player fans love. He plays hard, he enjoys himself, he is beloved in the clubhouse. Frankly, the Cardinals could use a smiling, happy person atop their lineup to help change this idea that the Cards are all sticks in the mud. Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Aledmys Diaz, Mike Leake … the Cardinals have a lot more goofballs than they are given credit for. Fowler will fit right in.
6. This move is still all about the Cubs. The Cubs have eaten the Cardinals lunch for two seasons now, and still, the Cardinals were resistant to change. Mozeliak is notoriously deliberate and focused on the long-term, and until the Cubs came around and blew everything up, this plan worked magnificently. But now he has to run with the big dogs. You can't just be "efficient" anymore: You have to be bold. This is the sort of bold move that the Cardinals have resisted in the past but now understand to be necessary.
7. The Cardinals got tired of finishing second in these free agent chases. Last year, St. Louis came up with the second-highest bid for three different players: David Price, Jason Heyward and Jeff Samardzija. This time, the team did whatever it took.
8. Thus, this might just be the start. Now that the window has cracked a bit, the Cardinals might be up for another big move. After all, once you've started spending -- and the Cardinals dropped $40 million from their payroll this year and just signed a big television deal -- why stop? Derrick Goold from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch speculated that, "They could become more aggressive than previously believed, turning toward free-agent sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as possible pursuits." That might seem excessive, but it shouldn't. The Cardinals could use another big bat in their lineup, and it appears that the market for those two sluggers continues to crater a bit, particularly now that the Colorado Rockies (Ian Desmond) and the New York Yankees (Matt Holliday) are out of the bidding. The Cardinals claim they have committed to Matt Carpenter at first base for 2017, but if the price is right on Trumbo or (especially) Encarnacion, you'd have to think the Cardinals would consider Carpenter at third and one of those guys at first. (Or signing Justin Turner and keeping Carpenter at first.) Imagine that lineup:
CF Dexter Fowler
SS Aledmys Diaz
3B Matt Carpenter
1B Edwin Encarnacion
RF Stephen Piscotty
C Yadier Molina
LF Randal Grichuk
2B Kolten Wong
That's not quite matching up to the Cubs -- particularly on defense -- but it's close. The Cardinals could do that and, if they could unload Jhonny Peralta's one-year contract, still have roughly the same payroll as last year. I'm not saying they will do this. But it's now on the table. They could also see what a Michael Wacha/Matt Adams package might get them. The point is: The Cardinals are about to get more active with this signing, not less.
9. The pitching is set. Meanwhile, the Cardinals bullpen looks as strong as any in baseball, and the rotation has upside and depth. Here are all their rotation options:
That gives the Cardinals top-tier options and potential trade chips. Or it just gives them backup when the inevitable injuries happen. Adding a potential superstar in Reyes lengthens the whole rotation and gives Mozeliak all sorts of possibilities. There's a reason the Cardinals refused to even consider Reyes in trade talks.
10. The Cardinals are going for it. A franchise that has been accused of timidity just decided, at last, to floor it. This opens up all sorts of avenues. With the new TV contract, could they even go after some of the massive free agents coming in 2018? If the Cardinals' coming crop of young players pans out like the last crop did -- and the Cardinals, by signing Fowler rather than making a trade, kept all those players -- could they become a pipeline-with-cash like the Cubs and Yankees are constructing? Can the Cardinals show that it is indeed possible to reload on the fly, to stay in, as Mozeliak puts it, "perpetual contention"? This is no longer a franchise waiting around. This is no longer a franchise OK with being prudent with free agents and thus finishing in second place for them. This is a franchise that now is at last flexing its payroll muscle.
Cardinals fans have been reeling and confused ever since the Cubs won the World Series, and really, since the Cubs have supplanted them as the premier franchise not just in the NL Central, but really in the Midwest, and the rivalry itself. But the Cubs may have done the Cardinals a great favor. Chicago's aggression forced St. Louis out of its trademark prudence and cautiousness and pushed the franchise to make riskier, higher-reward moves. If the Cubs' ascendance hadn't happened, the Cardinals might have kept going along as they were, happy to have 90-win upside and take their chances in October. But the Cubs floored it, got a World Series title out of it (and maybe more than one), and shook the Cardinals up. They changed the whole face of the Cardinals franchise. Now it's the Cardinals who are emulating the Cubs. The Cubs pushed the Cardinals out of their comfort zone. It's about time. This is just the beginning.