St. Louis Cardinals

Is the Cardinals’ next deal the one they don’t make at all?

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.
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. AP

General Manager John Mozeliak and skipper Mike Matheny on Friday introduced a new center fielder to the St. Louis Cardinals’ fold.

And they got the right one.

Dexter Fowler’s particular set of skills and the Cardinals’ specific needs make the two a perfect free-agent match. He helps improve outfield defense and makes the lineup deeper by assuming the leadoff spot.

Imagine the top of the Cardinals order in 2017. Fowler’s first with his .393 on-base percentage last season for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, followed by Aledmys Diaz (.369) and Matt Carpenter (.380)

The ducks, indeed, will be on the pond early and often. But for who?

Those who demanded the Cardinals break the piggy bank this offseason are giddy with Thursday’s late announcement that Fowler had been signed for five years and $82.5 million.

Now they’re howling for a slugger.

Hot stove talk late last week suggested the Cardinals had interest in Dodgers free agent third baseman Justin Turner, a rumor that fizzled as fast as it first appeared. Now it’s been rumored that Mozeliak is kicking the tires on Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion.

Such speculation is fueled, in part, because of the payroll the Cardinals purged with the departures of Matt Holliday ($17 million), Jaime Garcia ($12 million) and Brandon Moss ($8.25 million). The team also is due to cash in on a new 15-year, $1 billion television contract with Fox Sports at the start of 2018.

But unless Turner, 32, or Encarnacion, 33, can be had for a three-year commitment or less, don’t count on another major move.

St. Louis’ market discipline has never been entirely about the salaries. It’s about ensuring the player provides value throughout the entire term of his contract. The Cardinal rule is to avoid paying top dollar for a player’s declining years.

To that extent, even the Fowler contract — the richest the team has ever offered a veteran player who was not its own free agent — is a departure from the Cardinals’ normal way of doing business. He’ll be 35 years old and still drawing a $16.5 million paycheck.

The go-big-or-go-home crowd is tired of hearing how this strategy has produced 12 playoff berths, four National League pennants and two World Series Championships over the last 16 years. Or that the Cardinals are just a year removed from a 100-win season.

So I’ll make its case another way.

The February 2007 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover article heralding the Cubs’ hiring of manager Lou Piniella and the rich, long-term contract they gave to Alfonso Soriano.

Four years later, with baseball’s third-highest payroll and after consecutive fifth-place finishes, the Cubs were turning to Theo Epstein for help.

His plan-of-attack was simple and effective, albeit painful: Purge the payroll of bad contracts, develop a roster from within, and beg the fan base for patience.

By 2014, Epstein and the Cubs had baseball’s No. 23 overall payroll and by 2016 they were popping corks come November.

In short, the Cubs stole a page from the Cardinals’ playbook.

Patience is not what Cardinal Nation is made of. It expects a contender every year.

But it gets one consistently because this front office, as a matter of policy, does not saddle itself with the kind of long-term contracts that handcuffed the Cubs for so long.

I’m not saying that Mozeliak and the Cardinals shouldn’t pursue the likes of Turner or Encarnacion if they believe they can augment the bounty they found in Fowler. I’m just saying don’t count on it.

History should remind us that some of the best deals Mo and Co. have made are the deals they didn’t make at all.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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