With the Winter Meetings well underway, all indications are that the Cardinals’ pursuit of Dexter Fowler—the best outfielder on the free-agent market and a solid, straightforward answer to some of the club’s biggest needs—is a real thing. Ken Rosenthal reported late Monday night that the Cardinals had met with Fowler’s representatives and “made him an initial offer,” while Mark Saxon added that the offer is believed to be in the four-year, $60 million range.
As early as last week, though, whispers of a roadblock to a potential deal began cropping up in local media. “There are rumors,” said Frank Cusumano on his radio show, “that Dexter Fowler does not want to play for Mike Matheny.” Bernie Miklasz expressed a similar thought. Derrick Goold and Ben Hochman spent a good chunk of the latest Best Podcast in Baseball seeming to acknowledge the “grumblings” and things “in the wind” with regard to Fowler and alluding to unspecified “aspects” of the Cardinals “culture” that might not be a fit for certain players. Cusumano implied again this morning that Fowler is reluctant to sign with the Cardinals, albeit this time without mentioning Matheny.
Yes, these are just rumors, but I’m inclined to think there’s some truth to them. Goold, Miklasz, and Cusumano are pros, and while they’re naturally being careful about what they say, clearly they’ve heard something. Frankly, the mere fact that St. Louis’ habitually cozy and compliant sports media is relaying a rumor that’s unflattering to the Cardinals suggests that that something is pretty serious—as does the fact that Fowler has every incentive not to signal an aversion to a team that is actively bidding for him on the open market. That’s an awful lot of smoke—in an environment in which there should be no smoke at all—for there not to be a fire.
Whether or not you think Fowler would be a good signing, these rumors should alarm the hell out of you. Dexter Fowler is not a pariah. He’s a well-liked, level-headed veteran with no reputation whatsoever for conflict or controversy. Barring some arcane personal grudge that we’re not privy to, whatever he finds repellent about Mike Matheny or the culture he’s created in St. Louis is almost certainly something that plenty of other major leaguers will find repellent, too. And as plenty have pointed out, given the similarities between Fowler’s circumstances and those of his former Cubs teammate Jason Heyward a year ago, it’s possible at least one already has.
While details as to what exactly Fowler’s issues with Matheny might be are in short supply, most speculation relates to the nebulously-defined divide between baseball’s old and new schools, with the stodgy buttoned-down Cardinals supposedly on one side and the joyful free-wheeling Cubs on the other. This is certainly plausible, but it feels incomplete. For one thing, such divides are often less acute than trash-talking fans and narrative-hungry journalists make them out to be. And again, Fowler is no outlier; his two-year tenure with Joe Maddon’s roving band of merry pranksters notwithstanding, he’s not at all the kind of brash, Puig-esque renegade who you might expect to be reluctant to join a club with a reputation (deserved or not) for dull rigidity.
It’s Fowler’s utter ordinariness as a player and person that makes these rumors so concerning. If this is really about Fun vs. No Fun, that suggests Matheny is presiding over a clubhouse environment that’s wildly out of step with what a typical player is comfortable with in 2016 and diametrically opposed to the direction in which the game is clearly trending.
Uglier explanations, too, lurk on the margins. The Cardinals are nothing if not a conservative, insular organization, and who’s to say they haven’t developed a blind spot for some unexplored element of their culture that’s grown toxic or otherwise unappealing to outsiders? Matheny and other team leaders are very public about their faith, as they have every right to be, but how much institutionalized piety is too much? At what point does the club’s inability to acquire and retain African-American players become too consistent a pattern to ignore?
If the Cardinals fail to sign Fowler, there will be an effort to spin this situation as commonplace and value-neutral—some players prefer Maddon’s style, the thinking goes, while plenty of others prefer Matheny’s. No big deal. But even assuming a 50-50 split between these two categories of player, this is belied by actual outcomes. The Cubs have had no trouble convincing old-school hardasses like John Lackey and Jon Lester to join Maddon’s Oberlin drum circle of a baseball team. Given that every single defense of Matheny’s managerial ability begins—and most of them end—with his supposed leadership qualities and strong relationships with players, evidence that he’s harming the club by driving respected, sought-after free agents away would be a major scandal. Let’s hope the media would treat it like one.