2017 Cardinals: What Dexter Fowler brings

Dick Hughes

On a 1967 World Series champion with Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson, the pitcher who led the Cardinals in wins was Dick Hughes, a 29-year-old rookie who was 16-6. Gibson was limited to 24 starts by a broken leg, but Hughes, who started the season in the bullpen, only made 27 (and Carlton, a 22-year-old, 28). Hughes mostly worked out of the bullpen until May 25 when he two-hit the Braves in a 5-0 shutout, fanning nine. He was in the rotation for good, and pitched five complete games in seven starts and into the ninth in the two he didn’t finish. He won six of the seven, losing only 2-1 to the Reds when he fanned 13. With Gibson and Ray Washburn injured, Hughes led the Cardinals in wins (16-6) and innings (222.1). He led the entire NL in WHIP (0.954) and fewest hits per nine innings (6.6) and had a .593 OPS against, or 64 points lower than the Hall of Famer who bested him for Rookie of the Year, Tom Seaver. (Hughes was 17th in the MVP vote, though seventh among Cardinals. Five were regulars — first baseman Orlando Cepeda and catcher Tim McCarver were 1-2 — and the sixth was pitcher Nelson Briles, who was 14-5 with a 2.43 ERA, but started only 14 games and pitched 67 fewer innings than Hughes. Gibson was 22nd.) With Gibson healthy for the Series, Hughes started Game 2 and lost it to Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg, then started Game 6 and gave up three homers in four innings, though he was saved from another loss by a Cardinal rally in the seventh. After it took Hughes nine minor-league seasons to reach the majors, his career was over by the end of the next season. He hurt his rotator cuff in spring training of 1968, pitched 63.2 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, dabbled in the minors in 1969 and retired. Career totals: 20-9, 2.79 ERA, 307 innings, 221 hits, 76 walks, 230 strikeouts, 34 starts, 13 complete games, four shutouts, eight saves, 116 ERA+, .590 OPS against, 3.05 FIP, 0.967 WHIP, 5.1 WAR.

Up next: Jack Flaherty attended Harvard-Westlake High in California, which doesn’t mean much to anyone from the other 49 states, but does if you’re scouting high school pitchers. Flaherty was the third pitcher from the school picked in the first round of the amateur draft in three years, though he was the runt of the litter: the Nats took Lucas Giolito 16th in the 2012 draft, despite Tommy John surgery, nine picks after the Padres claimed Max Fried, who underwent it a couple years later. Flaherty went 34th two years later to the Cardinals, which makes you wonder if Ray Searage isn’t dabbling at the school in his offseason. Flaherty was decent in High A last year — 3.56 ERA, 134 innings, 126 strikeouts — and, wrote minorleagueball.com’s John Sickels in December, the ” Cardinals are not in a position where they have to rush him.” That was before Alex Reyes showed up at camp with a damaged elbow. All roads to St. Louis for pitching prospects have since been expedited.

What he said: “He was such a perfect signing for us. He fit the need we had on the field, but he’s such an enthusiastic, admired, popular, personable … it’s hard to remember someone who’s coming from another team that just instantaneously has buy-in from everybody.” Chairman Bill DeWitt on free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler, who signed with the Cardinals for $82.5 a year after signing with the Cubs for $8 million. What he meant: “If we realized all this last year, we could have saved a lot of money.”

Outlook: The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler away from the Cubs this offseason, paid him $82 million to leave and never said how much of it was for the sheer satisfaction of it.

The Cardinals, so used to winning, haven’t beaten the Cubs at much of anything in the last 18 months, losing a playoff series, two free agents and their aura of superiority when the latter finally won a World Series after 108 years of failing. No way Cardinals fans weren’t among the loudest cheering for Rajai Davis, if only to protect the smugness they felt toward their biggest rivals.

That’s all gone now — so is the moral high ground, with executive Chris Correa’s guilty plea to hacking — so the Cardinals spent $82.5 million on an outfielder who will be 31 on the contract’s first opening day, 36 when it ends, has never homered more than 17 times in a season, even while playing five of them in Coors Field, and has a career defensive rating of -4.0 WAR.

Revenge might well be a dish best served cold, but it’s also good not to overspend for it.

Desperation drives markets, and Fowler, who was so undesirable last offseason that he took a cut in pay to return to the Cubs, benefited.

It was against that backdrop in the Cardinals-Cubs relationship that a reporter last week asked Fowler, whose wife is Iranian, how he felt about the new president’s proposed immigration ban.

Fowler answered as only someone who’s played for both the Cubs and Cardinals can, trying to tiptoe the middle. “It’s huge,” Fowler said to ESPN. “Especially any time you’re not able to see your family. It’s unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate” was as strong as it got for Fowler, an 88 mph fastball of a response in a sport where 95-plus is common.

Fowler said he and his wife wanted to go to Iran to visit family, and that “his sister-in-law recently delayed her return from a business trip to Qatar because she did not want to be detained,” according to U.S. Today, but there was no further judgment or criticism, however muted.

Stalin said, “The death of one man is a tragedy and the death of millions is a statistic,” and maybe all Fowler was trying to do was show how a policy constructed in the abstract affected one person’s family in reality.

That wasn’t enough for some fans, who took to social media, a distorted reality all its own (Imagine, though, how history might be different had  Aaron Burr derived satisfaction for a perceived insult by returning a shot by tweet rather than a pistol.)

Numerous writers noted the vituperative comments on Cardinals fan websites, by many of the fans who consider themselves to be the best in baseball. Maybe that designation should get an asterisk that says as long as we’re not talking politics.

Then another blogger/writer pointed out that fans were saying the same kinds of things about Fowler, but on a website for Cubs fans, for whom Fowler just helped end 108 years of the worst kind of drought. No matter. No pardons, apparently, for leadoff Game 7 homers.

The good news is we finally found something Cubs fans and Cardinals fans, at least those of a particular political bent, can agree on.

The greater point is that fans are fans, from one end of the country to the other, and there’s a certain amount of boorishness in all of them, from Red Sox and Yankees fans on one end to Dodgers and Giants fans on the other, and all points in between. And it’s a much higher percentage of boorishness, a lot like Roy Face’s .947 after his 18-1 1960, if you choose to wade through the muck that is any comments section.

Of course when you put yourself up on a pedestal, as some Cardinals fans have, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude that comes with your toppling. Penn State football fans could help explain it.

By opening day Fowler’s views on immigration will be as gone as Randy Choate, the Cardinals left-handed relief specialist from 2013-15, who finally retired this month (in his last season with the Cardinals, Choate pitched 71 games and 27.1 innings. You don’t get more specialized than that).

And should Fowler homer, the complaining fans will be cheering alongside the supportive or apolitical ones. Remember how long it took Yankees fans, who spent a year demeaning the suspended Alex Rodriguez as not a real Yankee in 2014, to accept him when he returned in 2015? About as long as it took him to hit the first of his 33 homers.

It’s a tricky time, in more ways than Fowler, for the 2017 Cardinals, who were greeted at spring training with the season-ending elbow injury to the impressive if ill-fated Alex Reyes. The Cardinals will be fortunate to traverse it as well as their most expensive acquisition.

Last year’s Cardinals were fourth in MLB in runs scored and 12th in pitching, but tied for 12th in wins. Their 86 of the latter were the team’s fewest since they last missed the playoffs in 2010.

The Cardinals were unsteady on defense (-1.3 WAR as a team), and their answer was to move their only defender with a defensive WAR of 1.0 or greater — 25-year-old centerfielder Randal Grichuk — for Fowler, a 31-year-old centerfielder who was 0.3 last year and a negative the previous five.

Apparently, the new Cardinal Way is whatever tweaks the Cubs. If that’s the plan, things may get worse before they get better.

Team song: Bessie Smith: Mistreating Daddy

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