Louis Meyer, Sports Editor
St. Louis, MO-Before the days of Harrison Bader patrolling centerfield, even before the days of Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler patrolled centerfield for the Cardinals. During the 2016-2017 offseason, the Cardinals were in the market for a centerfielder. Randal Grichuk had been the Cardinals’ primary centerfielder in 2016, however he was an average centerfielder at best. His defense left something to be desired and he was a good bet to strike out at least once, if not twice, every game. The 2016 season ended early for the Cardinals as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The rumor mill immediately started to heat up. The Cardinals were linked to both Charlie Blackmon and Adam Eaton. However, like they usually do, the Cardinals surprised everyone and got someone few people expected them to.
On Dec. 9, 2016, the Cardinals signed free agent Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. The move was a surprise to many, for a couple of reasons. One reason being that Fowler was thought to be negotiating a reunion with his team of the last two seasons, the Chicago Cubs. The other reason being that Fowler didn’t really seem like an improvement at the time. Many fans were skeptical, especially of the deal. A five-year, $82.5 million deal for a 31-year-old centerfielder. However, fans in support of the deal quoted Fowlers great locker room presence, mood-altering smile, and his ability to hit left and right-handed. Fans would just have to wait and see how Fowler performed.
Dexter Fowler quieted any doubters by having a career year at the plate. Fowler slashed .264/.363/.851 to go along with 18 HR’s and 64 RBI’s. It was the most HR’s and RBI’s in a single season for Fowler. He also posted the highest slugging percentage and OPS percentage of his career. His 101 strikeouts were also the lowest he posted in a full season. Fowler also showed off his defense, especially his ability to track balls and keep runners from advancing on fly ball outs. While the Cardinals ended up missing the playoffs for the second season in a row, Fowler certainly wasn’t to blame. In fact, Fowler almost got the Cardinals into the playoffs single-handedly during their September push. Fowler hit .416 in the month of September, but it was not enough. Fowler’s performance gave fans hope that the team could end their two-year playoff drought the following season. However, fans and Fowler were in for a surprise in 2018.
The 2018 season saw Dexter Fowler move to right field. The previous season, the Cardinals promoted longtime minor league outfielder Tommy Pham to the big leagues, and he made quite the impression. Spending time at all three outfield positions, Pham slashed .306/.411/.931 to go along with 23 HR’s and 73 RBI’s. Pham also stole 25 bases and finished 11th in MVP voting. Pham’s speed and defensive skill set made him more of an ideal fit in center field than Fowler. Fowler voiced his displeasure with the decision, but ultimately went along with the plan. Fowler had a horrible start to 2018, and it only got worse.
Fowler’s slow start went undetected as fellow teammates Matt Carpenter’s and Marcell Ozuna’s slow starts were of bigger concern. However, as Carpenter and Ozuna began to rebound, Fowler continued to slump. In fact, he kept getting worse. Fowler’s batting average never eclipsed .200 and his defense looked sloppy. Some fans began to take shots at Fowler, at both his offense and defense. Some fans even suggested that Fowler was playing bad defense on purpose as a way of getting back at the team for moving him to right field. Talks of wasted money, bad investment and player decline soon began as Fowler was only in year two of his five-year deal. None of the negative comments sat well with Aliya Fowler, Dexter Fowler’s wife. Throughout Dexter’s career, Aliya has been a keyboard warrior/public defender for her husband. She has never been afraid to voice her opinions on negative comments referring to her husband. She quickly jumped on fans over Twitter calling them “fake fans, disloyal, unsupportive and outright mean.” However, certain fans, even some non-Cardinal ones, pushed back hard. At one point, it got so bad that both Dexter and Aliya deleted their Twitters because of all the negative comments coming in. They furthered that move by also temporarily taking down their Instagram accounts. Things were not looking good. Things continued to get worse as word got out that Dexter Fowler and manager Mike Matheny’s relationship was nonexistent, the two reportedly hadn’t even said a single word to one another in over two months.
General Manager John Mozeliak was asked about Fowler’s energy and effort and quickly sidestepped the question. Fowler starting ceding playing to rookie call-up Harrison Bader. Soon, Fowler was barely playing. Things looked very bleak for Fowler and his relationship with the team. Then Matheny was fired. Interim manager Mike Shildt immediately began starting Fowler again and publicly announced that he believed in Fowler. Behind the scenes, Shildt made sure Fowler knew he had his full confidence and would be given plenty of opportunities to turn his season around. Fowler responded to his new manager’s confidence in him by hitting .227 over the next two weeks with two home runs and two doubles. It wasn’t a huge turnaround, but it was improvement and it showed Fowler was capable of playing better. However, just as Fowler was turning things around, he suffered a significant setback. On Aug. 4, Fowler fractured his foot and would end up missing the rest of the 2018 season. Fowler ended the season with a career worst slash line of .181/.278/.576 to go along with just 8 HR’s and 31 RBI’s.
After a historically bad season at the plate in 2018, Cardinals fans had mixed opinions on Dexter Fowler. Some believed the team needed to move on from Fowler, even if it meant buying him out of his contract. Others believed his previous season was a fluke and that he was a sure bet to rebound. Shildt, who the Cardinals announced as the permanent manager, said that the plan was to keep Fowler in right field. Fowler spent his offseason working hard, both physically and mentally. Fowler also came out and told reporters that he had gone through a bout of depression during the previous season. As the 2019 season grew nearer and nearer, the questions about Fowler only increased. How long would Shildt let Fowler struggle before benching him? What if Tyler O’Neill or José Martinez were playing well, would they sit the bench in favor of Fowler?
So far, Fowler’s rebound season is going quite well. In 26 games this year, Fowler is slashing .313/.415/.840 with one home run and seven RBI’s. Fowler has also hit six doubles and walked 12 times. While it is a small sample size, it is clear that Fowler is turning things around. He is physically and mentally healthy, even his smile has reappeared. Fowler has also gotten the chance to play some centerfield this year. Starting centerfielder Harrison Bader suffered a strained hamstring, which meant Fowler slid into center. While he will move back over to right when Bader is healthy, Fowler is making the most of his time in center. In fact, he has already thrown out two runners at the plate. I think it is safe to say that Fowler’s 2018 season was a fluke and that he will continue to be an asset to the Cardinals for the duration of his contract.