Though the Cardinals did not make any transactions during their four-day stay at the Winter Meetings, it did not take long after their return to St. Louis for them to complete their pursuit of a new center fielder.
St. Louis announced Friday morning that it had signed center fielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year deal. Financial terms were not disclosed, but MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported that it was for $82.5 million and includes a full no-trade clause.
"It was an honor just to be even considered to be in the Cardinals organization," Fowler said at an introductory news conference on Friday. "I feel like this team has a chance to win the World Series, and that was a big part in coming here."
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It was no secret that the Cardinals were zeroed in on Fowler, a dynamic outfielder whom they believe can change the look of their lineup and improve them defensively. He'll likely take over in center, which will allow for Randal Grichuk to shift to left field.
"From Day 1, this was always someone that we were hoping to sign," general manager John Mozeliak said. "When we talked a couple of nights ago on the phone, we explained to him how excited we are for how well we believe he's going to fit into our lineup and fit into our clubhouse."
Signing Fowler cost the Cardinals their first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2017 Draft, since the Cubs made him a qualifying offer. That loss appeared to become more palpable to the Cardinals after they got an understanding of the caliber of prospects other teams were asking for in trade discussions. The Cardinals, in particular, had no interest in dealing top prospectAlex Reyes to address this outfield need.
Fowler, 30, entered the free-agent market last offseason hoping to land a multiyear contract, but he found that interest was stifled because of his attachment to the qualifying-offer system. Fowler instead returned to the Cubs under a one-year deal and had a standout season that made him much more coveted this time around.
"You obviously have a great presence at the top of the lineup," Mozeliak said. "The athleticism, the excitement of bringing in a player that has all the physical attributes -- but also those others, the ones that are behind the scenes that we put a lot of faith into."
A year after the Cubs lured two of the Cardinals' free agents, Jason Heyward and John Lackey, to Chicago, St. Louis has returned the favor.
Fowler emerged as the catalyst the Cubs needed atop their World Series championship lineup. His .393 on-base percentage ranked sixth best in the National League, and the Cubs went 64-20 when Fowler tallied at least one hit. With a career OBP of .366, Fowler would be an intriguing leadoff option for the Cardinals, who could then drop Matt Carpenter into more of a run-production spot in the lineup.
"One of the things we wanted to address was athleticism," Mozeliak said. "We wanted to address someone who could hit at the top of the order if possible, to give us flexibility with Carpenter. And we were also trying to find someone that was extremely competent on the basepaths. And I think we were able to accomplish that."
"Obviously, leading off, I've done it my whole career, and I feel like I need to get on base and set the tone for everybody else," Fowler said. "Joe [Maddon] came up with the nickname 'You Go, We Go,' and that's always stuck with me. Now that I'm with the Cardinals, I feel like if I go, we all go."
Fowler and Carpenter are two of just nine players to post an OBP of at least .365 (minimum 300 plate appearances) in at least four of the past five years.
"He's an exciting player, and we've seen him from the other dugout enough to realize he's the kind of player that can make a difference, especially at the top of the order," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Fowler this week. "You watch a Matt Carpenter-style at-bat -- going in and grinding and figuring out a way to get on base and figuring out what that does to an opposition, and what it does to a pitching staff, and how it elevates pitch counts, and how it does create a sense of rhythm in your offense. The more players that you can have like that, I think the better off you're going to be."
Fowler also immediately improves the look of the outfield. Moving Grichuk to left would allow the Cardinals to replace the departed Matt Holliday, who signed with the Yankees, with an above-average fielder. Fowler is not regarded as an exceptional center fielder, but he did benefit from the Cubs' decision to position him farther back in the field this past season. After registering -20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 and a -12 DRS in '15, Fowler had +1 DRS in '16.
Signing Fowler would complete the biggest item on the Cardinals' to-do list this offseason. The team already made a splash in the relief market by inking lefty Brett Cecil to a four-year, $30.5 million contract in November.
"What's next is, I think for us, it's probably gonna be looking more like at complementary pieces to what we currently have," Mozeliak said. "There's no doubt we still have some work to do. But in terms of maybe making a bolder-type move, where we're at, I don't envision that at this time."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Set to shift from one high-scoring lineup to another, Fowler should continue to help shallow-league fantasy teams next season. The outfielder is not the type of leadoff man to notch a prolific stolen-base total, but he will likely provide a dozen swipes -- and a similar long-ball tally -- with the on-base skills to score 100 runs if healthy. Such is not a given, however, as Fowler has spent time on the disabled list in three of the past four campaigns.
Fowler's arrival in St. Louis would boost the fantasy value of Carpenter, who would move from the top to the heart of the Redbirds' offense -- prime real estate for RBI chances.