Back with Cubs, Dexter Fowler playing like he has something to prove


Back with Cubs, Dexter Fowler playing like he has something to prove

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Right up until the moment the Cubs shocked even their own players one day in spring training, it looked like Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” message for Dexter Fowler would turn into “He gone.”

The Cubs manager still says that to Fowler before every at-bat, and the leadoff guy delivered on Opening Night, showing why that signing might be more of a necessity than a luxury item.  

“He brings a lot of energy,” Maddon said after Monday’s 9-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels. “He’s a catalyst, there’s no question about that. So to get him back like we did – in kind of dramatic fashion – imagine the lineup without him.”

Fowler saw 17 pitches at the top of an American League-style lineup that made five Angels throw 188 pitches. Fowler got on base four times, scored three runs and played center at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, allowing Gold Glover Jason Heyward to move over to his more natural position in right field.

“I’m always on a personal mission,” Fowler said with a smile.

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Fowler felt like he had unfinished business in Wrigleyville after helping the Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series: “It ended a little quicker than what we wanted. Coming back here, we definitely got something to prove.”

But if the Baltimore Orioles hadn’t slow-played the negotiations – pushing harder to close a reported three-year, $35 million deal – then Fowler probably wouldn’t have been wearing those sweet red-white-and-blue Air Jordan cleats for Opening Day. After that experience, Maddon believes the Cubs have a highly motivated employee.

“I’ve always been the underdog,” Fowler said. “I always play with a chip on my shoulder. But I’m going to go out and have fun and try to embrace the time I have with my teammates.” 

As expected, Fowler turned down the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer after a solid walk season that saw him get on base almost 35 percent of the time, hit 17 homers and score 102 runs for a 97-win team.

But the draft-pick compensation had a chilling effect on Fowler’s market and even teams that need to win now and could use a top-of-the-order presence – like the White Sox – became reluctant to give him the big multiyear deal.

Theo Epstein’s front office likes to kick the tires on everything, never ruling anything out, which explains some of the rumors that go nowhere. This time, the patience paid off, with Fowler accepting a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team’s Arizona complex on Feb. 25, or two days after the Baltimore reports. 

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Game 1 showed what this team could be all about, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta in cruise control on the mound and Fowler reminding the Cubs what they might have otherwise missed.

“These guys are my boys,” Fowler said. “This is my family. So coming out each and every day and being in the trenches with them is always awesome.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."