Dexter Fowler has missed the last 14 games. And the Cubs have lost 10 of them.
While there are plenty of other reasons the Cubs have recently made fans sweat with ugly sweeps at the hands of the Cardinals and Mets and dropping three of four to the Marlins, Fowler's absence is among the most glaring.
The center fielder and leadoff guy is in all likelihood going to be voted into the starting lineup for the National League All-Star team, but when he finally returns to the Cubs' starting lineup remains a mystery. The updates that came Monday from Fowler and manager Joe Maddon regarding the center fielder's hamstring injury fell more into the speculation category.
"I can’t put a time on it," Fowler said. "It feels good. It’s getting better, it’s getting better fast. That’s a good sign. I can’t really look toward the future."
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When Fowler initially went on the disabled list two weeks ago, it was billed mostly as precaution. He wasn't expected to need the full 15 days. But 15 days later, Fowler remains on the DL, and he might remain there a few days more, too.
What was certain Monday was that he'll go on a rehab assignment. When that will happen, however, was also unknown.
"He needs a day or two of rehab, getting out and playing. We don’t know when that’s going to be yet," Maddon said. "It’s not impossible to think that it can be by the end of this week. But it’s a day-to-day thing. He’s getting better, he’s feeling well. Obviously he’s motivated to play in the All-Star Game, that’s a big part of it. I understand that. We’ll just play out the rest of the week and see where it takes us. But there’s no definitive game strategy right now."
So if Fowler is one of three starting National League outfielders when the All-Star rosters are announced Tuesday, will he get a chance to play in the game?
"The thing with him is health. Maybe coincidentally you would send him out on those two days anyhow to play rehab, and it just happens to be before an All-Star Game. That would all be more coincidence more than we’re trying to push for him to play in an All-Star Game. That wouldn’t be it at all," Maddon said. "This might be the right time to do it. And then you know that he’s fine, and he goes (to the All-Star Game) and plays a couple innings out there, gets a couple at-bats, comes back and plays. I don’t know, this is all conjecture. But you don’t want to have the timing interfere with what you would have normally done anyway."
Here's what is a definite, though: The Cubs want Fowler back, and they could use him back in a big way. Again, his absence isn't the only reason the Cubs are experiencing a downturn from their white-hot start to the season. But losing an All-Star leadoff man has its obvious repercussions.
Fowler has led off every game he's started this season and posted a spectacular .290/.398/.483 slash line with 41 runs scored, 19 doubles, seven homers and 28 RBIs. Since his departure from June 18's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a variety of Cubs hitters have led off, with Ben Zobrist taking over the role on a consistent basis of late.
And while Zobrist's numbers in the leadoff spot are similarly strong — .286/.394/.500 slash line — it's taking Zobrist's bat out of the middle of the lineup that's causing the offense to sputter at times, per Maddon.
"Zo’s done a great job in the one-hole. He’s done a really good job," Maddon said. "I think that there’s an argument to be made it’s been kind of equal. But then you don’t have Zo somewhere else. That’s the issue. So I think either one of those two guys do a wonderful job (batting leadoff). But when you’re unable to utilize Zobrist in a different spot, obviously because Dex isn’t there, that’s where I think the impact has been felt more than anything. Getting Dexter back is important."
So will Fowler go on rehab this week? Will he be back with the Cubs this week? Will he play in the All-Star Game? Or will none of that happen until after the All-Star festivities?
The Cubs' answers to all of those questions are the same: "We'll see."
But the answer to whether they want and need Fowler back is different. The answer is a resounding yes.
"I thought we could hold serve," Maddon said of the time without Fowler in the lineup. "We’re not far below .500 since this has all been going on, we just had a bad series in New York. You go three out of four in Miami, get yourself righted in Cincinnati, and then have a tough weekend. I’m fine. I don’t think there’s any reason to overestimate anything. We definitely want to have Dexter back, no question."