SUMMERLIN, Nev. • As blunt as the numbers were on the scoreboard every time he walked up to hit, the heavier struggles dragging on Dexter Fowler revealed themselves when his irrepressible, day-glow smile curved the way of his batting average and then followed his playing time and for stretches vanished altogether.
He faced repeated questions about the reason for his sluggish performance. Nagging foot injuries had healed, he said. His legs were fine. No, he wasn’t ill. There was not an allergy, food poisoning, a virus or any other explanation offered for the lethargy that smothered his game. He searched, too, for an answer because he felt what others saw — that he was playing baseball as if underwater, in a darker corner of the deep end.
“I was depressed,” Fowler said. “That’s what I was. I got mad that I let it get to me. I should be mentally stronger than that. I shouldn’t have let it weigh me down as much as it did. But I was. I was depressed. I was depressed.”
The Cardinals outfielder leaned forward in his chair in the great room of his Las Vegas-area home as he described his feelings of depression during a candid, expansive interview this past week. A day after hosting the Cardinals’ front office and engaging in a karaoke faceoff with a teammate in the same room, Fowler punctuated his comments by tapping a table, sometimes with a water bottle and others with his hand. Often with a grin. He explained how he knew he’s “playing a game” and how he’d “gone through ruts before” with confidence. But 2018 cut deeper. Understanding why brightens his view of a revival in 2019.
The Cardinals have publicly — and privately to Fowler — backed the veteran as their starter in right field. There are three years remaining on a five-year, $82.5 million deal that saw career-high power numbers in year 1, career lows galore in year 2, and turbulence throughout. He’s energized by the belief the team has shown in him this winter. The bounce is back in more than just his foot. He recently told his wife, Aliya, how he “wants Cardinal Nation to know that side of me. I hope I earn that opportunity.”
As Fowler spoke, his oldest daughter, Naya, 4, scampered through the house looking for her mom and stopped briefly enough to make her father laugh about her urgency. His youngest, 5-month-old Ivy, was carried in for a goodnight kiss and beamed when she heard her father’s voice. He returned her smile. This is his life, he said. Baseball is his job. But, he then stressed, baseball is the game he “truly loves.” Always has been. Ask his mother, he insisted twice. She arrived that day for a visit. She did confirm.
He was asked if he lost that love in 2018.
“Um,” Fowler said.
He paused for five seconds. The house went silent, no tapping.
“I lost loving what is around the game,” he said.
“He’s just a good, happy, positive person,” Aliya Fowler explained later. “It’s the best way to describe him. Last year he wasn’t, and it was confusing. As his wife, I could see, whatever it was, was eating him up. He couldn’t shake it. … No matter how many times I said, ‘Just go out there and do your job,’ he would agree, and come back that night, defeated. The defeat was beyond the game. It was in his heart.”
Fowler had two singles, a walk and an RBI to back one bold prediction on Aug. 3 in Pittsburgh. He had bounded out of batting practice and told teammates “spring training is over.” He had the commitment of new manager Mike Shildt and felt a groove in his swing. The season seemed buoyant again as he reached second base in the eighth inning.
He hasn’t played since.
Fowler fractured his left foot in that game and put his broken 2018 season, officially, in a cast. His .576 OPS ranked 307th of the 313 players who had 250 plate appearances, and he finished the summer with a .180 average and his foot back in a protective boot. After returning home in October, Fowler saw a foot specialist who said he needed an additional six weeks in the boot. That setback delayed his return to full workouts and baseball activities until this month.
“I’m excited to put this all behind us and move on,” he said.
Cardinals head trainer Adam Olsen visited Fowler in Vegas last week and later lauded his workouts in an email. Like his teammates, Fowler received a file on his metrics from this past season and suggestions on what he could improve. Fowler’s showed his exit velocity was down and his footspeed slowed. According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity shriveled to 85.3 mph from 88.4 mph in 2017, and his sprinting dipped to 27.4 feet per second from 28.3 in 2016. He called the numbers “common sense.”
“I was in a slump,” he said. “When you get hot, your exit velo is going to go up and everything starts to level out. I never got there. My foot speed is down?” He laughed, wryly, and continued, “I didn’t run any bases because really I wasn’t on base.”
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, and Shildt flew to Vegas to meet Fowler earlier this offseason and, in Fowler’s words, “wipe the slate clean.” Mozeliak and Fowler have grown close, and Mozeliak was aware of Fowler’s feelings of depression. The Cardinals have offered whatever support the outfielder wants. In the meeting, Mozeliak and Shildt gave Fowler the kind of confidence he sought this past year. Fowler said he felt doubt emanating from the former manager’s office, and their relationship frayed.
As the crater deepened, Fowler referenced 2015 for traction. He went from May 1 to June 11 that summer and hit .202/.282/.340 in 279 plate appearances. The Cubs committed to him as leadoff hitter and he responded with a .279/.394/.467 line in his final 75 games, 69 of which he started.
In 2017, his first with the Cardinals, he started slow and on May 25 had hit .203/.300/.420 in 160 plate appearances. The Cardinals kept with him. He hit .295 and had a gaudy .926 OPS in his final 88 games.
He started 31 of the first 35 games in 2018 and wheezed to a .574 OPS. On May 10, he had a .156 average and a .271 on-base percentage. That same day, Matt Carpenter had a .147 average and a .581 OPS. That was the fork in their season.
Carpenter slugged his way to MVP votes.
Fowler’s production idled. His playing time shrank to 43 starts in the next 75 games, his plate appearances per game cut in half. The Cardinals had stronger alternatives at his position in Jose Martinez and Harrison Bader, and pressure mounted on manager Mike Matheny to win. Patience thinned. Fowler requested faith and playing time. When Shildt gave it, the foot injury halted any chance Fowler had to reward the investment.
Now it’s been promised again.
“It was tough because it felt like I couldn’t do anything to change it, couldn’t change how I was treated, and if you couldn’t change it, it felt like you’ve been removed from it,” Fowler said. “It’s a tough thing to describe. … It’s like you believe in me, you believe in the way I play, you believe in my talent. I put all of it in God’s hands and let it take care of itself. But it means a lot to hear that: You believe in me.”
On a snow-covered day after the 2013 season, Fowler checked his Garmin GPS watch and tugged on a knit beanie. He had miles to run outside of Salt Lake City, hills to climb, and a workout to complete all because Barry Bonds said so. Fowler was seeking instruction from the seven-time MVP. In response, he got a workout regimen that Fowler is convinced was designed to “make me quit.”
He had yet to meet Bonds in person.
“He said if he’s going to teach me how to hit, he’s going to need my body in the position that you’re able to learn how to hit,” Fowler said. “I’m trying to be the best, so that’s what I’m going to do. My whole mindset is if I’m going to learn from the best, I’m going to do everything that he says to do, and if I fail at it then I can always look back and say I did it. I did everything. I did everything and it’s not in the cards.”
He did everything and ever since has called Bonds a mentor. Fowler has also hired a chef, a trainer and a physical therapist, and he works with them almost daily, even before reporting to the ballpark. Fowler detailed his workouts because he wished he could bring critics along to “work with me, see what it’s like.” They “only know the numbers,” he said. He’s aware of criticism from fans and has retreated from Twitter, in part because of poisonous things said to him.
Fowler originally planned to travel to a friend's wedding in Mexico next month, on the same weekend as Winter Warm-up, and miss the annual fanfest for the third consecutive year. After discussions this weekend with his wife, he altered those plans and notified the Cardinals that he will attend the Warm-up. Part of a commitment, shared.
The Bonds story serves another purpose, too.
“I never quit,” Fowler said. “Too competitive.”
Fowler will spend several weeks with Bonds later this winter, and he has already started hitting. On Wednesday, he invited Mozeliak and other officials to see the multi-sport simulator screen he’s using in his garage to measure ball flight and exit velocity off a tee. He challenged them to a contest in simulated golf. Fowler went last and dropped a shot onto the green to win. He celebrated by saying, “And still …”
That’s boxing shorthand for “and still champion of the world.”
That same evening, Cardinals lefty Chasen Shreve could not outduel Fowler in karaoke, the host said. A “microphone hog,” according to his family, Fowler claimed to dominate karaoke because “I have a lot of genres.” He favors Usher, but sometimes shifts to Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and can flash Stevie Wonder, for the knockout. His wife watched and saw what she’s had since the clouds of 2018 broke. The foot injury assured Fowler more time with family, more time with his daughters, more time on the mic, and through them came “the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
“The happy-to-the-point-I-will-pester-you-with-my-smile-and-happiness Dex is back,” Aliya Fowler texted this weekend.
And still, indeed.
“Honestly, I’m excited to get back out there, to run around, to catch a fly ball, to hit a home run, to hit a line drive again, to be there and to compete,” Fowler said, tapping that table each time he said “to” for emphasis. “I don’t want to disappoint anybody. If anybody wants to be great, it’s me. … I know this: I can do better. I know better is out there. I want to show I’m getting better, better, better — better. Now we go. Now it’s time.”
GOLDSCHMIDT: ONE AND DONE, OR HERE LONG-TERM?
QUESTION: Did management ascertain Goldy’s interest in being traded to St. Louis and/or possibly signing with St. Louis before they traded for him?
GOOLD: Management? You mean the Cardinals? Here's what I can tell you about this situation. Goldschmidt recognized he could be traded -- and that he had no choice where that was going to be, so he was pretty chill about wherever. That said, in the hours after he was traded he heard from a lot of friends and people in baseball about what a fit he would be for the Cardinals, and how he was a Cardinal-type player wearing a different uniform all along, and how his family would enjoy St. Louis and so on. He mentioned that he was warm to the opportunity and welcoming of a team out to contend.
As far as signing an extension: There is some sense from folks familiar with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks talks that the Cardinals have a good idea what it will take to sign him -- and had that intelligence during the negotiating process. I've spoken to several people here and they either affirm that sense or talk about how the Cardinals, on the outside, look like a place Goldschmidt would welcome staying.
EXTENSION FOR OZUNA?
QUESTION: What's the thought process on extending Marcell Ozuna? Have there been talks? Wouldn't it be cheaper to try now instead of during or after a season in which he could, maybe (depending on a good shoulder) put up MVP numbers? And what might that deal look like?
GOOLD: There have not been talks that I know of, and there has not been an indication from either side that they would pursue talks about an extension. One reason for that is spelled out in your question. Marcell Ozuna is represented by Scott Boras. He knows that now would not be the time to do an extension, and he knows like the Cardinals know that Ozuna is not a player looking to go for the "cheaper" extension. They are all wise to this strategy. This deal would be a non-starter at this point because Ozuna has no motivation to sign -- and every motivation to have a big season and make big bank a year from now.
HOW MUCH DOES YADI HAVE LEFT?
QUESTION: How many good years do we have left with Yadi, the heart and soul of the team? Feels like any year now he’ll become a 100-game player. Isn’t the need for a “real” backup bordering on urgent?
GOOLD: This does seem like a fair read. Molina has two more years remaining on his current contract. He has friends and colleagues that would like him to push for one more season -- a victory lap, if you will, in 2021. The Cardinals are going to have to be open to that.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals had planned to have a backup in place this season that could catch 40-50 games, and then split the job in the final year of Molina's contract. Molina's play in recent seasons has shifted that plan. Molina's offseason work and health and conditioning and imposing will has also changed that plan. So, now the Cardinals see Molina as the same catcher he was in recent seasons entering 2019. And they're looking to 2020 as when Andrew Knizner is the 30-40 game catcher as his backup, and then in 2021 he's ready to take over if Molina is not there, and he's ready to split the job if Molina needs it.
WOULD HARPER SETTLE FOR THIS DEAL?
QUESTION: Would 5 years for $200 million get Harper? Gives him the big payday and free agency again while still young enough for another huge contract.
GOOLD: Same as an opt-out would -- giving him all of the power to leave and all the security that he wants. At this point, he's chasing the longer-term deal. He could open up the market for him and the bidding and become more appealing to a variety of teams if he embraces a shorter-term, higher-AAV contract.
TRADING A MARTINEZ ... OR TWO?
QUESTION: What's the latest on a potential deal involving Jose Martinez? Are the Cardinals getting offers for Carlos Martinez?
GOOLD: The Cardinals are actively shopping Jose Martinez in an attempt to get a lefty reliever. That has become clear. They've had talks with San Francisco. They've tried to sell him to a few other American League teams that have had interest or have an opening, like Minnesota or Tampa Bay. The Athletic reported late Tuesday night that the Dodgers and Cardinals have had talks about Jose Martinez. At this point, a trade wouldn't be a surprise at all.
The Cardinals don't believe they're getting strong offers for Carlos Martinez -- not enough to woo them into a deal at this point.
THINK BIGGER: HOW ABOUT J. MARTINEZ FOR KLUBER?
QUESTION: Jose Martinez is more valuable than just a lefty reliever rental, wouldn't you say? Why not make him part of a package for a better return? Corey Kluber, for instance.
GOOLD: I get where you're coming from, entirely. Absolutely. I see the value in flipping Jose Martinez to a team in exchange for a known, certainty lefty with control. Taylor Rogers makes sense in that regard. Give up a year or two of control, but in exchange the Cardinals are getting a player they can use, now, and in a role they have open. For sure. That makes sense to me.
It's a deal that pinches, and maybe they aren't getting full value but they are getting a player that they can use, and that weighs in. A rental? Less so. Martinez's five years of control for one year or two years in exchange is tougher to take -- unless that one or two years is coming from an elite reliever who could handle the ninth, take over the ninth, or be a surefire setup man. It has to be a rock star.
Kluber hasn't been on the board, it seems, for the Cardinals. He's an excellent pitcher, would change the look of the rotation, but they have really been quiet on starters so far this winter.
HICKS NO LONGER A CANDIDATE FOR CLOSER?
QUESTION: I thought the Cards were committed to Jordan Hicks as closer. Is that still the case, or are the Cards actively looking for a free-agent closer?
GOOLD: They are committed to keeping the role open for Hicks — eventually. That has always been the plan going back to this past season. In truth, they're open to keeping the ninth open for one of the young pitchers to grab, be it Hicks, Helsley, Hudson, or Alex Reyes. They don't want to block that growth. As GM Michael Girsch said Tuesday night, if they could find a reliever who was going to be the closer for the next 10 years then they would do that. Well, five or six is a good start toward 10.
NO INTEREST IN KIMBREL?
QUESTION: Does Craig Kimbrel move the needle at all for the Cardinals?
GOOLD: On a short-term deal that is below-market value, you bet. They'd really dig that. In the words of a Cardinals official yesterday "shorter" and "cheaper" deals for "good players" are always preferred.
Follow-up: Wasn't Red Sox Nation screaming to get rid of Joe Kelly in the middle of 2018? Amazing how a few weeks in October turns him into the guy everyone wants to trust in the Cardinals 'pen.
GOOLD: Yes. Bullpens, man. Relieving ain't easy.
VALUE OF NEWCOMER ROBINSON
POINT: Really liked the Drew Robinson trade. If Bader and Wong start most of the year, Robinson could be used all over, including pinch-runner. He's real fast.
GOOLD: He's got to make the team first, but having a lefthanded-hitting center fielder has value, especially if he improves his hitting against righthanded pitchers in the majors. Part-time roles can be tricky, as you know.
COUNTERPOINT: Drew Robinson cannot be the long-heralded lefthanded bench option. Please tell us there's someone else coming.
GOOLD: He very well could be. Cardinals will continue to talk to free-agent options.
TAKE A LOOK AT TULO?
QUESTION: Since Toronto is paying Troy Tulowitzki (released Tuesday) $38 million for the next two years, the Cardinals could buy him as low as $600,000 and see if he can play SS and move DeJong to 3B. If it didn't work, they could just move DeJong back.
GOOLD: It's a no-risk, high-upside move that as of Tuesday night got a low-energy response from the Cardinals. We'll see if that changes soon, or if there is a different vibe. Trust me, we'll be asking.
Follow-up: Is Tulowitzki’s release an example why the Cards are hesitant to give a 10-year contract, even to someone as young as Harper?
GOOLD: Yep. Bingo.
OUTLOOK FOR GOLDSCHMIDT IN HIS LATER YEARS?
QUESTION: How well do you think Goldschmidt’s game will age?
GOOLD: I've asked around a little bit about this to see if there are any comparisons. The one that comes up, of course, is Albert Pujols. Goldschmidt has a different body-type, but he's aggressive at first base and he plays a position that can be demanding if you make it, and Pujols did make it.
People who know Goldschmidt have seen the work he's put in to get stronger and stay stronger and prolong his durability, and they think that his swing won't erode, and that it could see the same change that other players do as they enter the 30s -- that average, that OBP may drop, but the HRs will go up. The big question for him will be his legs and feet. If they stay healthy, then he'll be socking away into the second half of his 30s, for sure. He has that profile. But foot injuries are serious and they can undermine a player as he ages.
PONCEDELEON ON THE I-55 SHUTTLE?
QUESTION: Will Daniel Poncedeleon most likely be an early starter at Memphis?
GOOLD: He could easily pitch his way into a bullpen role in spring training. That's possible. He'll be competing with Brebbia and others for that righthanded spot in the bullpen, and he could overtake them for the opening day roster.
He's really set up to be this coming year's Transaction Champ, honestly. It's not ideal. But that's how teams run their rosters and their bullpens now. Options make that possible.
BULLPEN SURPRISE FOR 2019?
QUESTION: What is the team's outlook for Dominic Leone in 2019?
GOOLD: They are quietly high on him. They think he has health, he has strength, and they don't forget that they planned on having him as the closer on opening day before they signed Greg Holland. When we talk about the options in the bullpen, you'll hear Mozeliak or someone always slide his name in quietly as the reliever they expect to have a much larger role than 2018 would imply.
STILL INTERESTED IN MILLER AND DESCALSO?
QUESTION: Any update on Cardinals' interest in Shelby Miller and Daniel Descalso?
GOOLD: The Cardinals reached out to the agents for both players and had discussions. They want to understand Miller's medical situation, and they're open to some kind of reunion with him. It's up for discussion.
Descalso was looked at for the role that the Cardinals filled with the Robinson deal. That doesn't end the talks, it just doesn't make the Cardinals an urgent participant in them.
FRONT OFFICE HESITANT TO GO 'ALL IN'?
COMMENT: In Monday's chat, you said that signing Harper would make the Cardinals one of the World Series favorites. Yet the Cardinal front office seems hesitant to dive in and make the move. Yes, Harper has a say in it. But it seems the front office is more concerned with contending than pushing the chips to the center of the table and going for it.
GOOLD: I don't agree with the take, sorry. I don't see the Cardinals "concerned with contending" and not trying to put a team together to win the World Series. That is their goal. As Mike Shildt said Wednesday, they do operate with a budget -- and shockingly, the front office may have a different opinion on players than the reporters who cover the team or the fans that care about it. But to extrapolate something about their goal because for you "all in, World Series" means Bryce Harper -- and they're not doing that -- then please consider the stance they've taken: "all in, World Series" has to include a better bullpen, regardless of who is in right field.
ANY UNDER-THE-RADAR ISSUES FOR 2019 CARDINALS?
QUESTION: What is the one concern the Cardinals may not be seeing heading into next year? Impact bat? Check. Left reliever? On the way presumably. Is it player regression, overvalue of starting rotation?
GOOLD: I'm going to stand by innings. Quality innings. To contend, the Cardinals need to come up with a way to get three pitchers -- or an aggregate group of starters -- that give them a higher percentage of quality starts than they appear to have right now. Mikolas is the given. But from Wacha, Flaherty, Martinez, and maybe Gomber, Wainwright, and a few others they need to have three guys who can go six innings with regularity. Otherwise the strain on this bullpen will show up. Otherwise the offense will have to be asked to carry too much.
This team, as it stands right now, has the chance -- the chance -- to have a superb, consistent rotation, for sure, but the certainty of six innings a start one time through the rotation isn't there let alone for a week, or two weeks at a time. Innings matter.
(Also: Let's see an improved defense in spring training before we buy that it is.)
BOTTOM LINE ON THE WINTER MEETINGS
COMMENT: An earlier comment about the Rule 5 draft being the main event at the Winter Meetings seems valid. MLB really hypes the event and every outlet sends media, but it sure seems of late that there is not much action.
GOOLD: Not much action in the market as a whole. There has really been a chill on free-agent pursuits. It's alarming. And we're seeing a real tectonic shift in the calendar as a result. There was a time when there was a rush to sign free agents around Thanksgiving. There was a rush on free agents around the winter meetings, and that it seemed odd that Jeff Suppan didn't have a deal done until Christmas Eve.
The schedule has been elongated. For many reasons. One, teams are so data-driven and analytical that it's hard to find that team that doesn't want to squeeze an agent for every last value -- and will wait to do so. ...
Second, baseball has no incentive for tightening this blob that the winter has become. Baseball loves that its game is in the headlines year round. It's one of the things that Bud Selig wanted to have, and that's part of the reason why it doesn't have the free agent mad dash that the NFL, NHL, and NBA does. It unfolds slower, gets more headlines, generates more tweeting, and keeps the hot stove on every fan's mind. Look at the traffic a chat like this generates -- or like yesterday's chat, or MLB Network's coverage.
Third, the hyper detailed and hyped-up coverage gives you the sense of a lot of talk and not a lot of action because that is what goes on. You were saved from how the sausage is made when the paper printed once a day. Something happened, it was the headline. Now, with rolling coverage throughout the day you get a play by play of the process and it seems like nothing is happening.
It's the difference between being a parent and not really recognizing how your kid grows because you see him/her every day and being a aunt or an uncle who visits every six months and goes, "Darn, that kid has grown seven inches." Same thing here. You see the minute by minute roll out of information, speculation, guessing, rumors, and reports -- vs. the end of day or next-day deal is done stuff. It really does give the sense that nothing is happening because all you've heard is all the things that could happen.