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Opinion | When it comes to Dexter Fowler, it's best to keep expectations low

Just about every Cardinals fan has an opinion on Dexter Fowler (and his contract). But what can we expect from the outfielder going forward?

Dexter Fowler is a polarizing topic in St. Louis. Just take a listen.

There are the faction of fans who think he's been a bad idea from the jump, a contract John Mozeliak was ill-advised to hand out. And there are the supporters, the ones who fall in love with that infectious smile, World Series past and All Star attitude.

Ever since his first day in St. Louis, those two sides have done battle over the merit of Fowler as a Cardinal.

In 2017, he only played in 118 games, but produced a f2.6 WAR with a .488 slugging percentage.

2018 was an abomination beginning to end, where Fowler was among the least productive players in baseball.

2019 was a bounce-back, where Fowler went back to being productive.

So, what does 2020 hold for the embattled outfielder? Somewhere in between, folks.

If you are still expecting the Fowler of 2015-16 to show up, I have unfortunate news for you. It's not happening. Fowler was healthy last season, playing in 150 games and clubbing 19 home runs. He played all outfield spots, and didn't post abysmal defensive metrics out there.

Fowler's Ultimate Zone Rating-a Fangraphs statistic that factors in arm, range, and error tendency-was just -1.4 in 2019. In years past, it got as bad as -15.0 and in his first year in St. Louis, -7.4. For context, Harrison Bader's UZR was 12.9 in 2019.

But Fowler became a ghost in September and October, hitting just .153 in the final month of the season. Fowler collected twice as many strikeouts (34) as he did hits in September, and it didn't improve in the NLDS and NLCS. Fowler only had two hits in 33 at-bats against Atlanta and Washington, striking out 10 times. That's 44 strikeouts and 19 hits since Sept. 1.

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When people rave about Fowler, it should be taken with a grain of salt. When Fowler moved into the leadoff spot for an ailing Matt Carpenter, people mistook it for a lineup-empowerment. Wrong. In 194 at-bats from the leadoff spot in 2019, Fowler only hit .211. He fared much better from the seventh spot in the lineup, where he compiled a .939 OPS in 110 at-bats. Once again, don't expect eye-opening production here.

The expectations exist due to the contract that pays Fowler $16.5 million in each 2020 and 2021. A contract that he may never live up to will never leave the conversation, a similar predicament for Carpenter as he attempts to make 2020 his comeback campaign after a disappointing 2019 season.

While the Cardinals may have streaked back to the top of the division, they remain restricted by their many reclamation projects. Along with trying to get as much as they can out of Fowler and Carpenter, they also need a return-to-normal season from Paul Goldschmidt, another healthy stroke of magic from Yadier Molina's knees, and have two open vacancies in the outfield next to Fowler. That's just on the hitting side of things.

The magnification over Fowler's production wouldn't be so large if there were more damage-creators in the lineup. He was never signed to be a savior, only a pillar meant to provide a spark. But he's never thrived at the top of the lineup. First, it was Tommy Pham nudging him out of center field, and then Bader did it. Several other outfielders expect to do that the next two seasons.

On Tuesday, a Twitter follower of mine noted how Fowler had a very solid 2019 season. The only way one could reasonably see that as "very solid" would be to see Fowler as a utility player or part-time producer. When you put up a 1.5 fWAR, very solid doesn't begin to enter the picture. He thought of it this way due to how bad Fowler was in 2018. A very bad season can have that effect.

Watch: Dexter Fowler talks after Cardinals clinch NL Central

Here's another thing about Fowler. He will play in 2020. A lot. If he is healthy, Mike Shildt will put him out there. It doesn't matter how good Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, or Dylan Carlson are playing; Fowler will get his at-bats one way or the other. It's not even worth arguing about because it's so true.

What does Steamer on Fangraphs have Fowler projected to produce? While the 19 home runs and 65 RBI aren't bad looking, the 0.9 fWAR doesn't seem too great. The .735 OPS projection isn't too kind. There's a stat called wRC+, which is weighted runs created. They base it on ballparks, ERA, and other factors. 100 is considered average. Here were Fowler's wRC+ finishes in his first three seasons in St. Louis: 122, 63, 103. Steamer has him at 97 for 2020, which would be below average.

This is why it's so important for the Cardinals to find better than average production in left and center field. If Fowler has to play right field, you need someone as good or better than Marcell Ozuna in left next season to balance it out. If not, you won't see an offense that ranked 23rd in the Majors improve. You won't see an outfield that ranked among the worst in the league improve. Just the facts.

Dexter Fowler is a good person who is a fine ambassador for the game in St. Louis, but on the field, he's just okay. When it comes to actual production, it's best to keep expectations low. If Fowler overshoots projections, it's a great surprise. If he falls short, it's a story that you already heard and have prepared for. If he falls in between, it's all the same.

"Very solid" may not be on the menu any longer. "Good" is still possible.

Thanks for reading.