Fowler, who joined St. Louis on a five-year contract worth $82.5 million, gives the Cardinals a bonafide center fielder and leadoff hitter, allowing them to slide Matt Carpenter down in the lineup, into a more traditional run producing role. Fowler improves the club's defense and offense. He's a perfect fit.
As it stands right now, Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny's lineup figures to look something like this:
- CF Dexter Fowler
- SS Aledmys Diaz
- 3B Matt Carpenter
- RF Stephen Piscotty
- 2B Jedd Gyorko
- LF Randal Grichuk
- C Yadier Molina
- 3B Jhonny Peralta
There's some wiggle room there, but that's the general lineup. The top four spots are pretty much etched in stone at this point. The next four spots are a little up in the air.
When you see the names on (digital) paper like that, one thing becomes clear: the Cardinals could really use another middle of the order bat. The team hopes Peralta will rebound from a poor 2016 season, but with his 35th birthday around the corner, it might not happen. They want Grichuk to take his offensive game to another level, though his general lack of plate discipline is an obstacle.
There are still several legitimate middle of the order thumpers available in free agency, almost all of whom would improve the St. Louis lineup. And after spending big on Fowler, it makes sense to keep spending and add that middle of the order bat for few reasons.
1. They've already forfeited their first round pick.
The Cardinals gave up their top pick to sign Fowler, and that's the big one. Once you take the plunge and give up your first rounder, double-dipping and surrendering your second round pick to sign another qualified free agent is much easier to swallow. For the Cardinals, that would be their second rounder, the 56th overall selection. Once your first rounder is gone, it makes sense to keep spending and get the help you need.
2. There appears to be some financial wiggle room.
According to Spotrac, the Cardinals closed the 2016 season with a $167 million payroll. And right now, based on Cot's Baseball Contracts and MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration projections, the Cardinals have $143.45 million on the books for 2017. That covers 18 roster spots, and the remaining seven figure to be filled by young players making something close to the league minimum.
Assuming St. Louis operates with a similar payroll in 2017 as they did in 2016, it sure looks like there's enough room for another big contract. Keep in mind they could backload a contract to make it work better financially too. Next offseason the club is shedding pricey commitments to Peralta, Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, and Jonathan Broxton. Trevor Rosenthal could be a non-tender candidate as well.
3. There might not be much more time to win with this core.
Molina turns 35 in July. Adam Wainwright turns 36 in August. Carpenter just turned 31 and Fowler will do the same in March. How much high-level baseball is left in this group? Could be lots for all we know. Given the way players age, it figures to be downhill from here. The 2017 season might be the Cardinals' last opportunity to win with this core group playing a significant role, and adding that middle of the order bat would improve their chances.
Which middle of the order bat fits best? Well, Edwin Encarnacion would be ideal since he's the best hitter on the market, though as Dayn Perry wrote, he's not a perfect fit. Mark Trumbo is also a free agent, bringing power and not much else. Power's a good thing to have! If you're going to be a one-tool player, power is the tool you want. Trumbo doesn't offer the on-base ability of Encarnacion, however.
I actually think Jose Bautista, whose market has been very quiet this winter, would make the most sense for the Cardinals. Here, look at this potential lineup compared to the one I presented earlier:
- CF Fowler
- SS Diaz
- 3B Carpenter
- 1B Encarnacion/Trumbo/Bautista
- RF Piscotty
- 2B Gyorko
- LF Grichuk
- C Molina
See? Doesn't that look so much better? That lineup is five deep with quality hitters, then you have the 20-plus homer bats of Gyorko and Grichuk picking up the scraps as the six and seven hitters.
Bautista has experience at first base and has expressed a willingness to play any position going forward. His agent said as much last month:
Bautista, even at age 36, brings power and on-base ability, and he also provides more positional flexibility than Encarnacion and Trumbo. The Cardinals could put Bautista at first base, slide Carpenter back to third, and relegate Peralta to the bench, which is where he probably fits best at this point of his career. They also have the option of putting Bautista in right and Piscotty at first. Piscotty has played the position.
Furthermore, Bautista might come on a short-term contract, perhaps only two years. The Cardinals don't have the DH, which could be a problem, but the potential to keep the contract short would help mitigate any long-term defensive concerns. Encarnacion and Trumbo are looking at four or even five-year contracts, on the other hand.
Either way, regardless of the target, the Cardinals have a clear need for a middle of the order bat and the wherewithal to go get one. The means are there and so should be the motivation. They want to maximize their chances to win with the Molina/Wainwright core while they can. With Fowler already on board, it only makes sense for St. Louis to continue spending and get the big bat they lack at the moment.