The Cardinals were neither long nor shy in signaling one of their top priorities heading into the offseason. Days after finishing the season 17½ games back of the Cubs and one game short of a wild-card spot, John Mozeliak acknowledged—as straightforwardly as the circumlocutory bow-tie enthusiast has ever acknowledged anything—that the club would seek an upgrade in center field, with Randal Grichuk sliding over to left to take the place of the departing Matt Holliday.
The names floated as potential targets have ranged from the underwhelming to the implausible. Yoenis Cespedes is a non-starter—not because of his defense, as the usual suspects have rushed to assure you, but because of the Cardinals’ allergy to spending what it takes to sign top free agents. His time with the Rangers notwithstanding, Carlos Gómez’s last two seasons have raised too many red flags. Trying to to predict trades is a fool’s errand, but moves for A.J. Pollock or Adam Eaton seem fantastical. Charlie Blackmon is a person who exists.
Dexter Fowler, who last Friday joined a shallow 2017 free-agent class by declining his half of a mutual option with the Cubs, is not light-years beyond any of the above alternatives. He’s not a transformative player; he won’t close that 17½-game gap on his own. But he’s the surest bet of any outfielder on the market, meets several of the Cardinals’ needs, and would preserve the club’s flexibility to either hold on to key prospects or trade them for an upgrade elsewhere. He’s not the answer to all the Cards’ problems, but he’s as good an answer as there is.
The knock on Fowler is that he’s at best an average defender in center, which is suboptimal for a team whose stated goal is to improve defensively after the sloppiness of 2016. But an outfield with Fowler in center and Grichuk in left (or even vice versa) is an improvement—and in any case, it’s infield defense that should be the higher priority for the Cardinals, whose pitching staff recorded the highest ground-ball rate in the majors last year. If the club can shore up the infield and add value via an outfield bat, continued defensive mediocrity in center wouldn’t be the end of the world, as Mozeliak himself conceded in his end-of-season press conference: “If we don’t find a good solution, we keep Grichuk there and put someone else in left field.”
What Fowler does provide is solidly above-average production from both sides of the plate and a proven track record as a leadoff hitter, which will give us something to complain about when Mike Matheny bats him seventh. And while he may not be a defensive upgrade, he can help in another area where the Cardinals performed miserably last season; only seven other major-league players added more value on the basepaths than Fowler did in 2016.
The other objections to signing Fowler—his age, his price tag, and the fact that as the recipient of a qualifying offer, he’d cost a first-round draft pick—are just tired, predictable grievances about free agency itself. The Cardinals stockpiled young talent through both the draft and the international market last year; to continue to run screaming from any qualified free agent would border on the pathological. They have money to spend—in general, and in a year when Holliday, Brandon Moss, and others are coming off the books in particular—and Fowler isn’t going to command a contract with any potential to become an albatross. Over-committing by a year or overpaying by a few million dollars in AAV won’t bring about the apocalypse.
Fowler is a straightforward and realistic option, so maybe it’s not surprising that he’s not a hot-stove favorite. These long, cold, baseball-less months are better spent trawling MLB Trade Rumors and speculating endlessly and dreaming of a batshit Mike Trout trade and making clear to everyone that you bought Kevin Kiermaier’s first album on vinyl. That’s all well and good—go crazy, folks—but whether Fowler is the answer or not, let’s hope the Cardinals’ front office, at least, realizes that there are higher baseball virtues than cleverness for its own sake.