When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to an expensive five-year/$85-million contract in December of 2016, they didn't think the contemplation to bench him would arise in year two of the deal.
Yet, here we are on June 13 with Fowler hitting .173 with little power, lots of strikeouts, and bad defense. What was once a wait-and-see approach is going to turn into something entirely different in the next couple weeks as the season reaches its halfway mark. How much time do you give one of your highest-paid position players to get things right?
With Harrison Bader waiting in the wings, the timeline may be cut short. Fowler is the aging plane with a faulty engine while Bader represents the newly-assembled, brand-new fighter jet that just needs a direction to launch in.
It doesn't help matters that the Cardinals are stuck in neutral over the past month of play, due in part to injuries and under-performance from stars like Fowler. In order to change the course of a team stuck in perpetual 5-5 mode, a shakeup must occur. When will the Cardinals figure out that starting Fowler over Bader right now isn't a good plan?
Go ahead and try to tell me that Fowler's 62 percent hard-contact rate is a crutch to rest on, and I'll respond with the fact that his exit velocity on that contact is 86 percent, which is below the league average of 88 percent. Fowler isn't hitting line drives as often as he did the past few seasons and that doesn't include the at-bats where he doesn't even touch the ball. In his last seven games, Fowler has seven strikeouts to only two hits.
What about his last 30 games? Fowler is hitting .167 with 21 strikeouts and 11 hits. Overall, his 24 walks aren't helping the on-base percentage of .274, which is nearly 10 percent less than his career average. Look at any stat with Fowler and it's not looking good right now. He's in a severe slump with only seven multi-hit games on the season.
According to Steamer projections on Fangraphs, Fowler is set to finish with 13 home runs and an OPS of .673, which would be a significant drop from 2017 and not a hopeful outlook at the future. Oh, he has three years left on his contract, folks.
It'd be one thing if the defense was there, but according to Fangraphs, Fowler has already cost the Cardinals five runs in the field in 2.5 months of play. He wasn't signed for his defense, and it is only going to get worse. Before you ask the question, Fowler will not take grounders at first base during tonight's batting practice. He's in the outfield or on the bench.
Right now, he needs to hit the bench. Bader is leaps and bounds better on defense and has a potent mix of speed and power at the plate. Bader's power stats are eerily similar to Fowler's in far fewer at-bats. Don't look, though. It may hurt a little. OK, go ahead and look.
While I don't think Michael Girsch needs to get out his fictional Ray Donovan baseball bat and create a hip impingement, Fowler can't start more than two games per week. Get in the cage and work on it. Watch video. Fall in love with the IPad showing every at-bat you took last year and this.
Think about Marcell Ozuna. He saw a misstep in his swing and stance, and changed it. He's now smashing baseballs 442 feet into the stands. Fowler isn't Ozuna by any means at the plate, but he needs to do some Columbo work on the side. Figure it out now, but not on the field.
Here's the thing: Fowler's struggles have NOTHING to do with a lack of hard work or hustle. He's trying. You can see it out there. It's just not clicking and that forces uncomfortable change.
The Cardinals can't afford to give up at-bats in a lineup that can be shut down with ease by a San Diego team putting out a bullpen game at Busch Stadium. Fowler pinch-hit for Miles Mikolas — who had 88 pitches — and struck out Tuesday night. He can't impact close games right now unless it's in a pinch-hitting capacity, where the outfielder has provided some short-lived heroics in 2018.
Unlike the Greg Holland situation (which is a one year contract), there's an uncomfortable vibe about this Fowler struggle. He couldn't stay healthy last year and battled a chronic heel issue, and this year he is largely ineffective at the plate. What happens when he hits the 33-35 age section? Ouch.
This isn't easy to write, because Fowler is a great dude who does a lot of charity and makes Twitter a fun place to interact and engage with him. But baseball players aren't paid $18 million to be friendly on social media and donate to good causes; they have to earn it on the field. Fowler put up a 2.5 fWAR in less than a full season last year. That seems dreamy right about now.
The Fowler conundrum isn't going to get any easier with each passing season, but right now, he simply can't find his way onto the lineup card over Bader. Matt Carpenter battled the same woes as Fowler, but snapped out of it during May. He fought his way back by adapting his ways at the plate and resetting. Somehow, Fowler has to do that.
I doubt it will be easy, but that's baseball. Like life, it will beat you to your knees if you let it.
For the time being, the Cardinals must do what is necessary to win baseball games, place Fowler on the bench.