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Dexter Fowler is the poster child for the Cardinals' frustrations

Dexter Fowler and teammates Jedd Gyorko and Tommy Pham celebrate a walkoff hit that gave the Cardinals an early-season series win against the New York Mets.
Dexter Fowler and teammates Jedd Gyorko and Tommy Pham celebrate a walkoff hit that gave the Cardinals an early-season series win against the New York Mets. AP

Remember when Dexter Fowler arrived in St. Louis as the guy who would rejuvenate a downtrodden Cardinals clubhouse?

His big, bright smile and amiable personality were going to be just the thing to take some of the starch out of Mike Matheny's buttoned-up culture.

So much for that.

Comments made by John Mozeliak on a podcast with Fox Sports Midwest broadcaster Dan McLaughlin portray Fowler as something closer to a sullen malcontent who has given up both on his team and the responsibilities tied to his five-year contract.

"I've also had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level," Mozeliak said. "You know, those are things I can't defend."

Mozeliak has backpedaled somewhat, explaining both to Fowler and the media that his comments were directed at the entire team, which has shown mere glimpses of the contender he believed it could be. Even after Monday's 6-3 win over Arizona, the Cardinals sit just three games over .500.

That's not all Fowler's fault, of course, but whether it was intended or not, Mozeliak has made the 32-year-old outfielder the poster child for a half season that's brimmed with frustration.

Fowler is batting .171, and his normal calling-card ability to find his on base is as notably absent as his playful clubhouse laughter. He's also already committed twice as many errors (4) as he did all of last season.

His struggles are typical of an upside-down year in which the club's question marks (the starting rotation, back end of the bullpen) have proved reliable and its supposed strengths (the rest of the bullpen and outfield offense) have been woefully inconsistent.

I don't really believe Fowler's decline is a product of lacking effort and he's not a surly malcontent. It feels more likely that the frustration of a slow start has snowballed on him and rattled his focus.

Whatever the cause, his sudden lack of production has created a big problem for the Cardinals, who beyond this season are still on the hook to Fowler for three years at $16.5 million each. That is a considerable payroll commitment to a guy who, over the last three months, hasn't been one of the organization's five best outfielders.

Fowler has started just four of the last 12 games and currently is on a paternity leave so he can be with his wife for the birth of their second child. He's scheduled to return in Thursday's series opener in San Francisco.

St. Louis Cardinals introduce Dexter Fowler, center, poses for a photo flanked by St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, left, and general manager John Mozeliak, right, during a news conference after signing the free agent center fielder Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in St. Louis. Jeff Roberson AP

Harrison Bader has hit well and contributed stellar defense in Fowler's stead. Tyler O'Neill, an ascending outfield prospect, has 21 home runs and 55 RBIs in just 226 at bats between St. Louis and Memphis. He was recalled by the Cardinals Monday while Fowler joined his family.

Mozeliak suggested that some added time off — maybe a 10-day stay on the DL to mend a nagging hangnail — would be in order for Fowler.

"In Dexter's case, maybe taking a brief time out, trying to reassess himself, and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what's best for everybody," he said.

If Fowler continues to sputter in his return, then what? Here are the options, none of which are ideal:

  • Trade him. This would be a trick for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is Fowler's full no-trade protection. But even if he accepted a trade for the opportunity to reboot with another team, there's the matter of the $49.5 million remaining on his contract relative to his current production. The only way this option works is if the Cardinals assume the majority share of his remaining salary.

  • Release him. This means eating that $49.5 million, plus whatever prorated amount remains for this season, just to open up the roster. As it is, the Cardinals also are carrying Kolten Wong, who is muddling along at a .188 clip and is headed into the final three years of a back-loaded contract that will pay him $29.5 million more through 2021. That's right. Over the next three years the Cardinals owe $70 million to two players who, at the moment, are not hitting their weight. That is enough payroll to cover their entire 40-man roster in 2001.

  • Keep him on, hope for a rebound, and invoke one of the first two options as circumstances dictate in the future. Players can rebound, but expecting it is a big risk. In the meantime, how long can Fowler (or Tommy Pham and Marcell Ozuna) block Bader and O'Neill? And what would being a fourth outfielder do for his clubhouse demeanor?

There is no simple solution here.

But something has to be done before Fowler's frustration proves as infectious as his smile.