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Cardinals: Mozeliak Questions Fowler’s Energy. It Could Be That Fowler Is Old.

Dexter Fowler is on the three-day paternity list, away from the Cardinals, to be with his wife Aliya for the birth of their second child. And I’m not being flippant when I say this, but at least Fowler finally has a reason to smile.

It’s been a long, lost season.

In 250 plate appearances Fowler is batting .171, the second worst average among MLB hitters. His OPS of .554 is the third worst, and more than 225 points lower than the league average.

Manager Mike Matheny has tried to get Fowler going, but there doesn’t seem to be an ignition switch. In the last nine games he started in right field, Fowler is 4-for-32 (.125) with a 33 percent strikeout rate.

A fuse is burning, however.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak certainly seemed to be questioning Fowler’s commitment in comments made during his weekly interview with Fox Sports Midwest play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin. You can listen to the interview — and many more — by visiting ScoopsWithDannyMac.com. Click here .

“It’s been a frustrating year for everybody involved, and here’s a guy that wants to go out and play well,” Mozeliak said. “I think (Fowler) would tell you ‘It’s hard to do that when you’re not playing, and not playing on a consistent basis.’

“But I’ve also had a lot people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level, and those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone that’s out there hustling and playing hard.

“I think really everybody just needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. In Dexter’s case, maybe taking just a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody.

“I am hopeful to touch base with him in the near future and really just decide what makes the most sense, but clearly he’s not playing at the level we had hoped.”

A few things here:

* If Mozeliak is disparaging Fowler’s effort and energy –and I don’t see another way to interpret the criticism — that’s incriminating. The Cardinals signed Fowler to a five-year contract worth $82.5 million before the 2017 season. It averages $16.5 million per season (which includes two annual bonus installments.) Fowler is halfway through his second season in St. Louis, which means he’s been paid $24.75 million so far … and is still owed $57.75 million guaranteed.  And he has full no-trade protection. If Fowler isn’t energized now, then how will things stand a year from now? He has 3.5 years to go on this deal.

* Or maybe Fowler, 32, is aging quickly. He has lost running speed. He has lost exit velocity. The signs are there. This may have nothing to do with energy or effort and everything to do with a terrible, inevitable, and irreversible decline of athleticism and skill. It happens to every athlete — some experience the aging curve earlier than others.

* Mozeliak is challenging Fowler to look in the mirror, and all of that. But if Fowler can’t play at a respectable level, if his skill has eroded, then what is he supposed to be looking at? Again, Mozeliak seems to have made up his mind there; this is about effort and energy. And perhaps Mozeliak is right.

* Part I:  But what if Mozeliak is right in his assessment of Fowler? Where do the Cardinals go from here? Fowler may not be running through walls — though he sure tried to recently in pursuit of a long  drive at Miller Park in Milwaukee. But Fowler has done nothing egregious. The Cardinals can’t void the contract. They can’t refuse to pay Fowler.

* Part II: And what is Mozeliak is wrong here, and Fowler’s bad season is attributable to a rapid pace of decline?

* Part III: Either way,  it doesn’t really matter if Mozeliak is right or wrong. Because unless Fowler decides to retire soon — no chance — the Cardinals will still have to deal with this.

Here are some options and guesses:

1. Do not be surprised if Mozeliak tells Fowler to extend the paternity leave through the upcoming All-Star break. All they have to do is put Fowler on the disabled list; surely something is sore and requires rest. This would give Fowler time to clear his head. This would give the Cardinals time to come up with a plan.

2. If Fowler is being slowed by an actual injury, as is rumored, then perhaps the Cardinals can convince him to shut it down for a while, regroup, freshen up, and then take time to work on his swing during a minor-league rehab assignment.

3. If Fowler is miserable, then the Cardinals shouldn’t have a problem in persuading him to waive his non-trade clause. Not that he would be easy to trade; not with his statistics, not at his age, and not at his guaranteed salary level. But if the Cardinals are willing to pick up the tab for most of the money owed to Fowler, a trade is at least possible.

4. The Cardinals can make a difficult decision and just designate Fowler for assignment. Which is another way of saying “release him.” But they’d still be on the hook for the remaining guarantees, and again, at the moment we’re talking about $57.75 million.

5. If there is an issue with Fowler’s morale, perhaps Fowler would be rejuvenated by a major shakeup that would include the dismissal of Matheny and batting coach John Mabry. But I doubt that franchise chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. or Mozeliak would give Matheny the boot just to appease Fowler.

6. If this Fowler-STL relationship ends in sourness, rancor and disgust, this would not be a positive development for a franchise that already is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in attracting free agents. Or in trading for a pending free agent, and convincing him to sign an extension — as Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and others did many years ago. It’s a different time and place. The St. Louis image has been tainted by horrendous publicity nationally, and this doesn’t help with the recruiting pitch to minority players. And the Cardinals — overshadowed by the Cubs, and having slipped into mediocrity — are no longer a destination franchise.

7. My opinion: if Mozeliak and the Cardinals truly believe Fowler is withholding effort, or even if they conclude his skills have faded, then they have to let go and move on. It’s easy for me to say that Cardinals ownership-management should admit an expensive mistake and get on with a future minus Fowler. But if he can’t play, or can’t get motivated, and you can’t trade him … then what the hell is the point? What’s the plan, keep him in the dugout as a pinch hitter and spot starter for the next 3.5 seasons? Yeah, that would get Fowler fired up. And with Fowler taking up a roster spot, will this block or delay the progression of young outfielders who are making their way to the big club? I’m talking about dudes like Tyler O’Neill, Oscar Mercado, Dylan Carson, Randy Arozarena, Aroldis Garcia … with Fowler taking a long-term seat on the pine, that’s one less place in the big leagues for a rising prospect.

8. Mozeliak should heed his own words. Earlier this season, when asked about weighing Fowler’s poor performance against the team’s contract investment in Fowler, Mozeliak said this: “I think you really have to boil it down to, this is the big leagues and we’re here to win baseball games. This is not a developmental league and at some point you have to go with who you have the most faith in at the moment, or the hot hand and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”  Yes, and if you don’t think a 32-year-old outfielder can help you win — if anything you may see him as a detriment to winning — then cut your losses.

9. I think Mozeliak should be ticked off about other things more than Dexter Fowler. One example: If I supervised a baseball operation and organization that has banked much of its future on a treasure trove of young pitching, I probably would want to find a manager that’s adept at, well, you know … handling pitching. Unless, of course, the bosses think it was swell to see a roasted Luke Weaver being left in the game for more punishment (and runs allowed) in a marathon 35-pitch fifth inning against Atlanta on Saturday. Even by Matheny’s standards, this was alarmingly irresponsible.

10. For now, Fowler is in no position to crab about playing time. The Cardinals — well, at least in theory — are trying to win games.

In the first two months of the season, Fowler had 185 plate appearances as the Cardinals’ right fielder, with Harrison Bader running a distant second with 41 PA. But that changed in June; both Fowler and Bader had 54 plate appearances as right fielders last month. The problem is, neither player did much offensively. Fowler batted .143 with a .406 OPS and a 26 percent strikeout rate; Bader had a .212 average with a .491 OPS and a 33.3% strikeout rate. And there wasn’t a single RBI between them.

Looking at the Cardinals’ offensive numbers from their right fielders in June — .186 average, .493 OPS, and a 29.5% strikeout rate — and now we see why Jose Martinez will likely be moved from first base to right field.

Matheny is absolutely correct in trying other players in right field.  Fowler doesn’t warrant much playing time, especially if the Cardinals can put a good hitter in right field. At minus 1.1 WAR, Fowler is the third worst position player in the majors this season. Only Detroit’s Victor Martinez (minus 1.3 WAR) and Baltimore’s Chris Davis (minus 2.0 WAR) rank below Fowler in Wins Above Replacement on a list of 174 MLB hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. That minus 1.1 WAR means that the Fowler has less value than an ordinary nondescript replacement a team would call up from the minors to fill a hole for a few days.

And don’t forget; Fowler has cost his pitchers runs with his defense in right. He’s minus 4 in Defensive Runs Saved.

Is there a chance of a Fowler revival?

I’d mention Matt Kemp as an example of how it’s possible, but Kemp was never this pitiful at the plate.

Or is Fowler just Vernon Wells v 2.0?

The indicators aren’t encouraging.

Fowler isn’t hitting much of anything this season, with a .215 average vs. fastballs (8th worst in MLB) and .108 (8-for-74) on non-fastballs this (3rd worst.)

What about breaking pitches? Nope. He’s hitless in 29 at-bats on breaking thrown by RH pitchers this season, the worst in MLB among hitters with at least 120 PAs.

No more stats. You get the point. It’s bleak.

Good luck to Mozeliak and Fowler as they try to figure out how to make this work.

Or maybe they’ll need more luck as they figure out how to proceed if they can’t make it work.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More – McLaughlin: ‘Mozeliak’s Comments on Fowler’s Hustle Are Glaring’