The trio met in Clayton for a late dinner Thursday night, two former teammates and a boss they were about to share.
Outfielder Dexter Fowler and Cardinals baseball operations executive Randy Flores knew each other well, from their time together with Colorado. But beyond an awkward attempted conversation this week during a dentist appointment and, of course, the blockbuster-dollar agreement that brought him to St. Louis, Fowler and general manager John Mozeliak had not talked much. They had never met face to face until Thursday night.
A meal became conversation ... an hour became two ... and they left ...
“Like the three of us knew each other for years,” Mozeliak said. “I don’t want to overplay this but when you think about his personality and the energy he brings, it was very evident at dinner. It really just reinforced what we were trying to do, that this was the right person for us.”
Fowler and the Cardinals finalized a five-year, $82.5 million contract Friday. The club’s new leadoff hitter and center fielder was presented his new jersey, No. 25, during a news conference at Busch Stadium. He was, as Mozeliak described, a fountain of smiles, ease and laughter, peppering his news conference with stories. Fowler’s deal includes a no-trade clause, according to a source, and it spreads the salary evenly, $16.5 million a season. It is the largest contract the Cardinals have ever given a free agent who had not been with the team previously, and it eclipses by $30 million the last one signed by a position player.
The Cardinals set out this offseason to change the look of their lineup and to change the athleticism in their outfield, and while Fowler does both of those, he also could affect another thing management wanted to change.
“If I got into a clubhouse we’re going to have fun,” said Fowler, who played last year with the raucous and World Series champion Cubs. “Even if the clubhouse is not having fun, we’re going to have fun. Win, lose, or draw. Let’s have fun because I believe that’s going to make us better. I feel like I can do that in a clubhouse. Either way, we’ll get the guys out of their shell if they are in the shell.”
As the Cardinals stumbled to a subpar season in 2016 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, there was a sense around the team and its management that the clubhouse became stale. Spring had an unusual feel to it as meetings were called and personalities attempted to mesh, and that continued through the season all the way to second place. While the issues were different, Mozeliak sought a reboot of the clubhouse after the 2010 season and purposefully acquired gregarious veterans Lance Berkman and Ryan Theriot.
He described them several years ago as he did Fowler on Friday: “Infectious.”
The Cardinals’ pursuit of Fowler, 30, intensified this past week at the winter meetings. While the Cardinals explored trades for other center fielders, notably Adam Eaton, Lorenzo Cain, and possibly Charlie Blackmon, the talent being sought in such deals skyrocketed. The Cardinals had remained in touch with Fowler’s agent, targeting him as the most desirable free agent available.
“From day one, this was always someone we were hoping to sign,” Mozeliak said. “We wanted to address athleticism. We wanted to address someone who could hit at the top of the order if possible to allow us flexibility with (Matt) Carpenter. And we were also looking to find someone extremely competent on the basepaths. But Mr. Fowler is more than that.”
Fowler’s .393 on-base percentage paced all leadoff hitters in the majors last season, just ahead of Carpenter’s .386. Aledmys Diaz led all major-league rookies with a .369 on-base percentage to allow the Cardinals to stack OBP in the top three spots of their lineup. To that, Fowler also brings instincts and consistency in center, and he is a plus-baserunner. Fowler had a net gain of plus-10 bases taken, according to The Bill James Handbook. He went second to home on a single 12 times in 16 opportunities in 2016. For comparison, Carpenter did that three out of 12 times.
Mozeliak attempted to talk with Fowler in person this week and Fowler was unable to articulate that he would accept the deal. He was at the dentist, his mouth full of appliances. He texted a photo of himself in the chair to his agent to show Mozeliak.
“A first for me,” Mozeliak said.
They had an agreement late Wednesday night. On his flight from Las Vegas, Fowler was approached by a fan who had logged onto the onboard Wi-Fi and seen reports of his deal. Fowler tried to shrug it off with a smile and go back to sleep. The secrecy had been blown.
Fowler did not arrive in St. Louis without an awareness of St. Louis. In addition to playing eight years in the National League — the last two in Chicago — Fowler shared an agent with former Cardinal Jason Heyward and shared a clubhouse last year with former Cardinals starter John Lackey. He and former Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay have been close for years, playing against each other in high school and almost sharing an outfield at the University of Miami. (Fowler chose pro ball over a commitment to Miami and his acceptance to Harvard.) He tried to avoid letting their views sway him.
“I tried to form my own opinions,” Fowler said. “You never know their experience in a clubhouse vs. I could have a different experience. You hear what they’re saying. You want to hear it yourself. That’s huge.”
The Cardinals have made larger offers to free agents but, as recently as last year, fell shy of landing two they coveted, David Price and Heyward. This did nudge the front office to rethink its approach, recognizing that the market can force them beyond their data. A year ago, the Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million deal. Fowler’s deal surpasses that and Jhonny Peralta’s four-year, $53 million. Fowler’s yearly average is the highest ever for a player from outside the organization.
Already this winter, the Cardinals signed reliever Brett Cecil to a $30.5 million deal.
“There is this perceived notion that we’re never going to get players in the free-agent market,” Mozeliak said. “This year we spent more than $100 million in aggregate. The commitment from (chairman Bill) DeWitt down is real. I hope what people realize is that we’re committed to winning, we are committed to trying to improve, and we do recognize the areas we can do that and we hope we addressed it.”
All of it.
With a grin, Fowler arrived.
With more than his swing, he offers a change.
“We also think of him as a leader,” Mozeliak said. “And more importantly, he wants to lead. He wants to have a voice in that clubhouse. When you think about all of things we’ve talked about and tried to change, the culture of what we have going — we like what we have but now we like it better. We feel he’s only going to enhance that.”