The Dexter Fowler Deal Isn’t Really About Dexter Fowler

It was bound to happen once the odds shifted in favor of baseball starting on time, but the offseason has ramped up quickly over the last week. Some of the top free agents have come off the board, and a five-player trade, some smaller signings and all sorts of 40-man roster shuffling took place. Buried among it all was a quick move by the Cardinals on Thursday, as they sent outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Angels per Jon Heyman, with St. Louis picking up all but $1.75 million of his 2021 salary.

It’s not a transaction that really moves the needle for either team in terms of the standings. And it’s not a transaction that creates any kind of real financial flexibility for future moves. Instead, this is a deal that illustrates how one player may fall on different points on the insurance vs. opportunity spectrum depending on which uniform he’s suiting up in.

I’m not here to argue that Dexter Fowler is that good now. He wasn’t a star necessarily, but he spent a nice-sized chunk of the last decade firmly in the “very good” category. He got on base and had some sneaky pop, and from 2011-17 averaged a .370 OBP with an .800-plus OPS and a 116 wRC+. And while he was certainly athletic enough to be a good center fielder, but he’s never been a good defender. His jumps and routes have always been substandard, and his habit of catching the ball at his chest has driven fundamentals-focused coaches insane for 13 years now, though he at least does tend to catch it. I remember Fowler’s 2014 campaign with the Astros and how I’d wince every time the ball was hit his way. I’d hoped to find a video to illustrate this tendency, and it didn’t take long. I thought I might need to go through a few videos from MLB’s vault to uncover a good example, but it was right there in the first video provided, his last putout of the 2020 season.

But I digress. Fowler isn’t that good anymore, but there’s still some value to rostering him. He certainly still gives his team a competitive at-bat against right-handed pitching, posting a .260/.349/.452 line last year that was masked in his overall line by an ugly showing against southpaws. On paper, the Cardinals could use such a bat in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive National League Central race. The Nolan Arenado trade put a lot of attention on the team’s impressive infield, but their outfield is one loaded with question marks and uncertainty.

2021 Cardinal Outfield
LF Tyler O’Neill .227 .290 .436 89
CF Harrison Bader .228 .314 .404 90
RF Dylan Carlson .245 .315 .426 94
SOURCE: ZiPS Projections

It’s a physical group that, in terms of raw strength, would do well in an outfield Royal Rumble, but in terms of baseball, is full of unproven players. Tyler O’Neill has a chance to hit 30-plus bombs and turn into some kind of right-handed Kyle Schwarber. Harrison Bader is a tooled-out center fielder who can really track it down but has seen his bat regress since a promising 2018 rookie campaign. And Dylan Carlson is one of St. Louis’ top prospects who looks like he can be an everyday corner outfielder, with a chance of being an above-average or better one.

As you can see, none of them has a ZiPS-projected wRC+ of 100 or more, and the chances are good that the entire Cardinals outfield will be hitting in the bottom half of the order in April. There are lots of ifs and chances and hopes in the group above, and there are lesser-known players right below them likely to compete for bench outfield jobs this spring. Austin Dean is a bit of a lug, but has a career .944 OPS in Triple-A while showing power and a good approach at the plate. Justin Williams’ lack of power and patience probably limits him to future fourth outfielder status, but he’s got a downright pretty left-handed swing and a propensity for putting the bat on the ball. Lane Thomas might lack a standout tool, but there’s no glaring weakness in his game and he gives one defensive comfort anywhere on the grass.

Some of these players will exceed expectations. Some will do the opposite. But somewhere in this group is the Cardinals’ outfield of the future, or at least a good-sized portion of it, and in terms of right here and right now, Fowler gets in the way of the Cardinals figuring that out. It’s time to let the kids play, as it were. No pressure on the manager to put the vet in the lineup once an unproven player has a tough three-game series, no excuse to give the kid a day off instead of forcing him to work through his struggles by continuing to get at-bats. And for the players themselves, there’s no pressure of the more proven commodity in the rear-view mirror when the inevitable low points rear their ugly head. Without Fowler around, the Cardinals get to use this year to figure out who is going to be a fixture, who is going to hold down the fort until something better comes along, and who is eventually going to be looking for work elsewhere.

In terms of insurance and opportunity, the insurance Fowler clearly provides just isn’t worth the cost of the blocked opportunity. The Cardinals are not a better team for losing Fowler, and $1.75 million does not constitute any real financial gain in the modern baseball economy, but trading him provides an immeasurable value in terms of learning about their future roster.

For the Angels, Fowler’s addition creates an opposite value. Other players were given opportunities during the 2020 season, and based on the results, Los Angeles wants a little insurance. If Fowler were a free agent and the Angels signed him to a one-year deal for $1.75 million, you wouldn’t blink. You might even say it’s a nice, cost-effective addition. The Angels wish they weren’t in the position to need veteran insurance in the outfield, but then Jo Adell’s 2020 rookie campaign happened, and instead of entering the year with a burgeoning star in right field, they’re left with question mark far too large for comfort.

Adell entered the year as the No. 4 prospect in baseball. He was the rare high school tools bet who clicked early, reaching Triple-A, and deservedly so, as a 20-year-old. He was a monster athlete with power and more importantly, showed an ability to get to that power in game settings.

The biggest concerns with Adell revolved around his aggressive approach, and the significant amount of swing-and-miss in his game that came with it. Those concerns became glaring during his 2020 big league showing, to the point of looking like the potential undoing of his considerable potential. A 5.3% walk rate combined with a 41.7% strikeout rate is not a survivable combination for any player, regardless of the tools.

The easy answer here is that Adell wasn’t ready. That’s not wrong — he wasn’t. But more specifically, Adell wasn’t ready to be advanced. No Triple-A club has three or four or more people watching every Adell at-bat in preparation for the upcoming three-game series against Salt Lake. The big leagues are another story. Pitchers getting ready to play the Angels receive a dossier on every potential opposing hitter, and with Adell, they took advantage of his tendency to chase, finding the extreme holes in the zone itself, which led to a paltry sub-70% in-zone contact rate. For comparison, even an all-or-nothing whiff machine like Joey Gallo consistently exceeds 70%.

The Fowler acquisition lets Adell figure things out back in Utah while also allowing the club to keep an eye on fellow outfield prospect Brandon Marsh. Yes, the Angels will learn less about him there, but unlike with the young Cardinals group, 2020 proved that Adell isn’t ready for a big league opportunity yet, regardless of potential.

It’s year one of new GM Perry Minasian’s tenure in Orange County, so for him, it’s the first, unavoidable round of the seemingly never ending ‘rebuild around Mike Trout’ cycle. Dexter Fowler provides disaster insurance the team needs to show that rebuild won’t start off in the wrong direction. It’s a minor deal that doesn’t have any real effect on either club’s place in the standings, but the Fowler trades shows that some transactions are better measured by their significant impact on others.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

I’m still confused why Marsh, who looks like a safer floor player, and older, didn’t get any shot last year, while Adell was so bad. Jo needed more reps elsewhere and idk, I guess maybe they felt the same for Marsh while wanting to see what the higher ceiling player could offer.

1 year ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Adell had played AAA in 2019, while Marsh had only played AA. Doesn’t matter to me, I like Marsh a lot, but probably factored into FO thinking

1 year ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Marsh will get his shot this year. I don’t understand all the panic surrounding Adell or the idea that he’s suddenly been exposed. It was known he had certain issues that required work, and working out issues at the major league level is a terrible idea. Adell had all of 253 PA at AA and 131 at AAA. It was beyond quixotic to believe he was going to be successful being rushed to Anaheim. That decision alone merited cleaning out the front office.