Cheap Seats

Cardinals are wrong to bank on Dexter Fowler, but fans who attack him are more wrong

It seems that the St. Louis Cardinals are unfortunately serious in their commitment to outfielder Dexter Fowler for the 2019 season.

As it seems that superstar free agent Bryce Harper is nearing a contract agreement, most likely with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the St. Louis media is suddenly filled with stories about Fowler, many of which include excuses for his poor play in 2018 and wistful hope that he’ll suddenly turn things around for the coming campaign. It’s obvious the front office is pushing the narrative here.

I stand by what I said a few days ago: Fowler is no excuse for passing on Harper. There is no way to claim with a straight face that the Redbirds wouldn’t be better with Harper on the team than they are without him. Meanwhile, it’s ridiculous to claim the team can’t sign one of the best players in baseball because it made a bad deal three winters ago to invest in Fowler. We don’t know that Fowler can improve on his .180 batting average last season, and he would have to improve upon it significantly to justify a starting job in the major leagues. On the off chance he does so, Marcell Ozuna is a free agent after the 2019 season, so a corner outfield spot can be opened up for the comeback player of the century.

The Redbirds would have a lot easier time accommodating both Fowler and Harper in 2019 and beyond than it will have if and when Fowler proves last season was no fluke and he has to be replaced by Tyler O’Neill, a promising player, but one who only has a cup of coffee worth of time in the big leagues. If Fowler can’t perform, then a team that put all its eggs in the 2019 basket with Ozuna and newly-acquired slugger Paul Goldschmidt both set to become free agents at the end of the season will be without an established right fielder. That’s a tough blow to absorb when it’s starting center fielder and second baseman have already been penciled in to the last two slots in the batting order. Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong are solid glove men. But because they are inconsistent at getting on base, the right fielder is going to have to play higher in the lineup and be a steady contributor.

It makes a lot of sense to me, with uncertainly surrounding Fowler’s falling off, not to count on him to suddenly be magically better. Especially when the Redbirds are uniquely positioned to add elite talent. It’s ironic that the team’s lone payroll error is the one guy who will supposedly prevent the team from making a pivotal offseason move.

While I am not sold on Fowler’s physical abilities because of his track record and his age, it has been disappointing to see so many fans getting personal about one of the Cardinals players. I’ve read numerous social media posts over the past week that claim Fowler is a traitor, lazy, ungrateful, greedy or just about any other negative adjective you can think of. I’m not sure how people who have never met a man are qualified to judge his character or speak about his motivation. That’s not the kind of guy the Redbirds were trying to acquire when they signed Fowler to a five-year contract, so I doubt that’s the sort of person he is now. Who knows what a guy has going on in his private life? But we’re here to talk about baseball, not to point fingers.

There has been a lot of criticism of the Birds by fans because of their inability to attract free agents in recent years, not the least of which is that the club hasn’t created the sort of atmosphere that players want to buy into. As fans, we need to remember we play a role in all of this. Harper is one of the many players who has publicly stated how much he loves playing in St. Louis because of the big crowds, enthusiastic fan support and high energy of Busch Stadium.

Let’s not spoil that by recasting the reputation of Cardinals fans as folks who are abusive, reactionary and short-sighted.