TCN St. Louis Cardinals 2018 Top Story #7: Four Deals Gone Wrong

photo: Dexter Fowler, Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)

Not every item in our annual countdown of the St. Louis Cardinals top 10 stories of 2018 is positive, and this is one of those exceptions. Especially given the Cards fell short of the playoffs for the third consecutive year, one would expect that several key players underperformed.

The players included here are outfielder Dexter Fowler and relief pitchers Greg Holland, Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson.

That is not to suggest that other Cardinals did not struggle, too, but these four prominent players stood out in their underachievement relative to their compensation.

Their 2018 salaries totaled $42.8 million, plus the loss of the 59th overall selection in the 2018 draft. However, the money may not have been the largest negative impact when considering the games lost because these players fell short of prior performance and current expectations.

Though the details are slightly different, most sources of MLB team financials had the 2018 Cardinals payroll pegged at about $160 million, meaning this quartet represented more than 25 percent of the team’s player expenditure.

For that, they delivered an aggregate negative 1.9 wins above replacement (according to Fangraphs WAR calculations). Fowler was 38 percent worse that the average MLB hitter and the three pitchers all limped home with ERAs around seven.

2018 Cardinal Pay $MM fWAR wRC+ ERA FIP
Dexter Fowler $16.5 -1.2 62
Greg Holland $13.8 0.0 7.92 4.56
Brett Cecil $7.5 -0.6 6.89 6.28
Luke Gregerson $5.0 -0.1 7.11 4.74
Total $42.8 -1.9

I chose the word “limped” purposely, as injuries were a part of the story of each, though hardly the only (or in several cases THE) deciding factor.

Let’s briefly review them individually.


Dexter Fowler (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

Fowler – The outfielder was in year two of a five-year, $82.5 million contract which runs through 2021. In his first season with the team, the 33-year old had struggled with injuries and was not sharp in center field, but upon his return over the final two months of the 2017 season, Fowler was the Cardinals’ best hitter.

In 2018, Fowler seemed sluggish in his new right field position and coupled with his ineffectiveness at the plate, it led to him being called out by President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, an act for which the executive apologized. Further adding to what Fowler termed as depression was his feeling that he had lost the confidence of manager Mike Matheny and fan anger that crossed the line, driving the player and his wife off social media.

New manager Mike Shildt, who took over in July, tried to reassure Fowler, but the outfielder’s hitting only improved slightly before a recurring foot injury ended his season in early August. His record shows he was among the game’s lowest contributors in 2018, but will be given another shot in the spring.


Brett Cecil (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

Cecil – The left-handed reliever was pitching in the second year of his four-year, $30.5 million contract which runs through 2020. In year one as a Cardinal, Cecil had a 3.88 ERA that was higher than his results in Toronto.

In 2018, it got much worse, as the 32-year old completely lost the mojo that had made him effective with the Jays. As noted in the table above, Cecil’s Fielding Independent Pitching mark (or FIP) suggests his 6.89 ERA was fairly reflective of his performance.

To open the year, Cecil pitched in just one regular season game before going onto the disabled list due to a left shoulder strain. He was activated in mid-May but was back on the DL by late July with right foot inflammation.

Cecil returned to the active roster on August 15, but pitched sparingly down the stretch, including just six appearances in September. Still, over the final six weeks, Cecil had three separate outings in which he yielded three earned runs each, including his last time out, a crucial final-week home loss to Milwaukee on September 25th.

Cecil’s future as a Cardinal may depend on his spring performance, as the club continues to add left-handed bullpen alternatives.


Luke Gregerson (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

Gregerson – Last December, the veteran right-hander was signed to a two-year, $11 million contract as a free agent with the suggestion that he could become the 2018 closer. After an uneven spring camp that included a left hamstring strain, the now 34-year old instead opened the season on the disabled list, setting the tone for a lost year.

Gregerson returned on April 16, but exactly one month later, he was back on the DL, this time due to a right shoulder impingement. That time out lasted two months. He was only active for 17 days before going back on the shelf at the end of July, with the recurring shoulder problem that ended his season at just 12 2/3 innings over 17 games.

He pitched so little with such questionable health that there just isn’t much more to say about year one of Gregerson’s Cardinals return other than it was a huge disappointment. He is another who will report to 2019 spring camp in the midst of a crowded job competition for bullpen spots.


Greg Holland (St. Louis Cardinals)

Holland – As the regular season was in its first series, the Cardinals signed the reigning National League saves leader to a one-year contract for $14 million, reportedly at the urging of Matheny. The club also forfeited its second-round draft pick and the associated signing slot bonus of over $1.1 million to land the Scott Boras client.

Not having a traditional spring training seemed to adversely affect Holland, as he struggled from the very start and never gained any consistency. The Cardinals put the then-32-year old on the DL from May 26 until June 19 with a right hip impingement, but he was only marginally better upon his return.

On July 27, Holland was designated for assignment, and on August 1, he was released. The club that then added him, the Washington Nationals, picked up a pro-rated amount of the MLB-minimum salary with the Cardinals owing the remainder. Holland is once again a free agent.


In closing

I am never in favor of making players whipping boys or attacking them personally; yet just as we honor successes, we need to be honest about the failures. On their own, I am sure these players would all readily admit their 2018 seasons were unfortunate as they work to return to better times in 2019. Only Holland will attempt to do so on another club.


The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown

The Cardinal Nation’s Top 10 Stories of 2018 Countdown


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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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