Heading into the 2017 season, Dexter Fowler is the name that many Cardinals fans will be keeping a close eye on. We noted when grading the club’s offseason moves that Fowler was the prize acquisition, brought in to improve defense and base running, as well as solidify the top of the lineup. There were a few other smaller changes made to the team, but Fowler was signed in order to be a difference maker from day one.
To hear the way some analysts and writers have discussed the desired impact of Fowler, one would think that the Cardinals had fallen off dramatically in 2016. The team did miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010—a fairly remarkable feat given the parity in baseball in the current decade—but this slip wasn’t entirely unexpected. The Cubs were identified as overwhelming favorites in the NL Central at the outset of the season and proved good enough to live up to expectations. St. Louis merely fell short of a wild card slot while the entire National League looked up at the dominant Cubs.
Early predictions for the NL Central in 2017 paint a similar picture, with Chicago expected to be the team to beat, and St. Louis projected in second. Anything is possible over the course of a 162-game season, but at this point, it seems like a logical order. The Cubs are returning the bulk of their World Series-winning roster (sans Fowler and closer Aroldis Chapman, who returned to the Yankees). The key question for Cards fans is whether or not this year’s club can seize a wild card spot, or even challenge Chicago for divisional supremacy. And because these goals represent only a slight improvement on last year’s outcome, Fowler—the one big-name signing of the offseason—is the player on whom the season will inevitably be judged.
What his on-field production will wind up looking like remains to be seen, but Cardinals fans should be encouraged by indications that he’s already taking up a leadership role. Some recent insights shared by ESPN showed that Dexter Fowler has helped to loosen up the clubhouse, in part by bringing music to batting practice but also through his generally laid back, fun-loving demeanor. As is true of many of sports’ most successful organizations—the New York Yankees, New England Patriots, and San Antonio Spurs come to mind—St. Louis is known for a serious and professional atmosphere. Still, every now and then it helps to lighten up a little bit, and Fowler already seems to be infusing this group with a sense of levity that might prove valuable.
Throw in the fact that Fowler turned in a confident and productive first outing in the Grapefruit League this past weekend and things are looking good early for the Cards’ big addition. Of course, no one is saying that a speaker system at batting practice and a couple of walks in an early Spring Training game are going to make the difference for 2017, but it’s nice to see Dexter Fowler making his presence felt early on. It’s a presence that could ultimately help to return the team to the playoffs.