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The St. Louis Cardinals simply cannot stick with Dexter Fowler in 2019

The Philadelphia Phillies, long considered to be a favorite to land Harper because of their deep pockets and willingness to spend to improve their club, raised eyebrows Tuesday when they signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year contract. Does that mean the Phillies are out on Harper? Not necessarily. But they seem to have filled an outfield need and could very well turn to Manny Machado to help them get rid of all those pesky millions of dollars just laying around. The Yankees said they’re out of the Harper bidding over the weekend. That leaves the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, the Washington Nationals and maybe the Redbirds still in the mix.

A lot of the speculation these days about Harper’s potential fit for the team revolves around the fact that St. Louis has about $15 million tied up in right field already over the next three years because of Fowler’s contract. But that excuse isn’t going to wash with loyal St. Louis fans who are frustrated by their team’s lack of competitiveness the past three years. If the Redbirds don’t sign Harper because someone else offers him $400 million and the team doesn’t think that kind of investment makes sense, so be it. But if he goes for the same amount the team would have paid last year for Giancarlo Stanton (or less, had the proposed trade with the Miami Marlins gone through) just because the team couldn’t get over its bad deal for Fowler, well, that’s not going to fly.

First, you can’t pass on the opportunity to acquire one of the top three players in the game today because you signed a bad deal with a guy who seems like he’s at the end of the road. Second, assume that Fowler makes a remarkable career rebound at age 32 from one of the statistically worst players in the major leagues to a serviceable major league starter. If that miraculously happens, the Cardinals can walk away from Marcell Ozuna when his contract runs out at the end of the 2019 season and install Fowler in one of the two outfield corners for the remaining two years of his deal.

I think the odds of the latter happening are remote, at best. Fowler looked like his bat and his legs slowed in 2018 to the point that it would be difficult to perform at the highest level of the sport. Why the sudden decline? I don’t know. But it seems foolish to hope for Fowler to turn back the clock two or three years. The best hope would be that he is a serviceable fourth outfielder, cobbling together 400 at bats over the course of the season giving the three starters a day of rest here and there, filling in for injuries and providing a left-handed option in the starting lineup and off the bench when needed. But even that seems like a stretch because I don’t imagine a guy who just two years ago was a starting center fielder being able to defend the position now.

The fact of the matter is that, if Harper was on the roster, manager Mike Shildt won’t lay in bed awake at night agonizing over whether he should start Harper or Fowler in right field. There are no grounds for a debate on that topic. Harper is in the top three players at the positive end of the National League spectrum and Fowler is in the bottom three players on the negative side. If Fowler makes a dramatic rebound, the best thing that could happen is if he convinces another team’s general manager it would be worthwhile to take his remaining contract.

Unfortunately, Fowler fits into the same category as his former teammate Mike Leake as a bad signing that the team has to move past. If the St. Louis front office truly realizes the restlessness of the fan base and feels an urgency to put a playoff caliber team on the field, it can’t use a past mistake as an excuse — especially when there is a solution to the potentially crowded outfield in Ozuna’s expiring contract. In my conversations with Cardinals fans, there is no more controversial issue than the team’s implication that Fowler, a guy who hit .180 last year with a .278 on-base percentage last season, is going to be handed a starting outfield job because the front office can’t accept that it made a mistake and move on.

On paper, if the Cardinals gave $35 million a year to Harper, the club would have $50 million in right field for 2019. But that’s not the whole story. The team has to have one of the cheapest effective starting rotations in baseball with Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas locked into team-friendly contracts, Michael Wacha, whose earnings have been held down by injuries, is in his last year of arbitration eligibility and then you have Adam Wainwright basically working for incentives and Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber or Alex Reyes working for the major league minimum. If you factor in that the club stands to have a closer making the minimum and a starting shortstop working on the cheap, the total of the budget works out.

It might seem greedy to some that the Birds just added Paul Goldschmidt yet fans are asking for more. But Goldschmidt, Ozuna, Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko (the latter two have options for 2020) could see their contracts come to an end after 2019, giving St. Louis both the need and the flexibility for a centerpiece ballplayer to anchor the team in the future.