During the 2019 season, Matt Carpenter struggled to the point that the St. Louis Cardinals moved him to a platoon role. He came off the bench more and pinch-hit late in games but didn't start every day.
Manager Mike Shildt made that gutsy call and played a better-hitting and cheaper Tommy Edman, among other utility weapons, in Carpenter's spot. It was the right call and helped the Cardinals spring up and snatch the National League Central. After all, a pinch-hitting Carpenter did help the team steal a game at Wrigley late in the season.
The Cardinals have to be diligent in the same manner with veteran outfielder, Dexter Fowler. There's just no better way to put this. If Fowler isn't hitting, he shouldn't be starting. If he starts the season in right field and struggles, Shildt must make the hard choice once again and pull him from the starting lineup.
It isn't like the Harrison Bader situation, a player whose defense can save the team runs and keep them in a close game that he is 0-3 with three strikeouts in. Fowler's defense is adequate at best. He can make the occasional miraculous catch and doesn't have a wretched arm, but he isn't going to steal many outs and save runs out there. He's the guy who sees the double sailing into the corner and seems to be using Door Dash as he chases it into the corner. It's just not good enough or worthy of a starting nod.
Fowler's bread and butter is getting on base and adding some pop to the hitting equation. A career .359 on base percentage, including a .346 mark last season, is what Fowler does better than most. While his OPS+ was a below average 98 last season, Fowler managed to do just enough at the plate to be a feasible option. Feasible as in a 1.5 fWAR for the Cardinals, which won't cut it on a team struggling for offensive output.
Steamer on Fangraphs has Fowler producing a 0.7 WAR in 2020, which is fine if you are a middle reliever. Being a starting outfielder, 2.0 WAR is the minimum. It's not looking good out there for Fowler.
Here's the thing. Bader is a better option than Fowler. Tyler O'Neill and Lane Thomas are better options than Fowler. For parts of the last two seasons, so was former Cardinal, Jose Martinez. Dylan Carlson is a better option right now than Fowler. Heck, a retired Matt Holliday is probably a better overall option if he can still swing it.
Carlson is best suited for right field. It's the position he's played the most in his minor league career. If all things were fair and equal, the Cardinals would feature a starting outfield of O'Neill, Bader/Thomas, and Carlson in 2020. Energetic and packing equal amounts of offensive power and defensive craft, that's a quality outfield that leans on John Mozeliak's fountain of youth. Fowler doesn't represent either.
He'll be 34 years old in three days. If the season is delayed, you can start slicing down that projected WAR more and more. It doesn't help that spring training wasn't kind to Fowler. He went 3-31 with 12 strikeouts and three walks, including zero extra base hits. If you add that to the month of September and the playoffs from last year, and it gets uglier. Since Sept. 1, Fowler is 24-157 with 56 strikeouts. That's awful, no hyperbole required.
The Cardinals can't afford to start a guy who doesn't offer one very good tool. A .346 OBP is desirable but shouldn't keep a guy in the lineup. Fowler's salary shouldn't keep him there either. He makes $16.5 million this year and next, but desperate times calls for the right players with a division-contending team that didn't make many upgrades in the offseason.
The one upgrade they are set to make involves a 20-year-old top prospect who could change the lineup's makeup. That is, if Carlson can actually make it into the lineup in his proper spot. If it was a real competition this spring, Fowler would have already lost.
Carpenter made good money last year, but he is set to make more money than Fowler this season at $18.5 million. I can tell you there's a good chance Shildt will bench Carpenter again if he struggles, inserting Edman back into his place. Let's hope he can make the same move with Fowler, who doesn't offer as much as Carpenter.
Shildt loves Fowler. He's loyal to him and that's a Shildt staple from the moment he became a coach over 15 years ago. He understands the player-coach dynamic better than most, but he's also the manager of a Major League Baseball contending team right now. He's the reigning manager of the year as well. There can be no favors given for good personalities and service time. Whenever baseball does resume-it'll happen at some point this season-Shildt has to make the right call with Fowler.
When Fowler was signed, there was a lurking suspicion that he would deteriorate near the end of his contract. Instead, that happened during the second year of his deal. While year number 3 was better, it shouldn't solidify him in the starting lineup for 2020.
Let's face it. At this point in his career, Fowler is a 4th outfielder.