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.
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.
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.”