The buzz around Dexter Fowler at Cubs camp


The buzz around Dexter Fowler at Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. – Dexter Fowler heard it from his teammates on Monday morning, the whiny, high-pitched voices yelling on the other end of clubhouse: “Ewwww…I’m afraid of beeees!”

No, Cubs strength/conditioning coach Tim Buss didn’t dress up in a bumblebee costume or a beekeeper suit for the team stretch/daily stunt.

But Fowler already pulled off the biggest surprise in camp when he walked into the Sloan Park complex on Feb. 25 – two days after reports had him agreeing to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles.     

This time, the buzz around Fowler became how he left Sunday’s game after feeling tightness on his left side, which forced Jason Heyward to move from right field to center, where a swarm of bees attacked the Gold Glover with the new $184 million contract.

“It wasn’t the bees,” Fowler said. “My side was tight before that – before I even started the game. And then I figured I ended on a good note.”

Yes, Fowler homered off Seattle Mariners left-hander James Paxton in his first at-bat, and his teammates enjoyed calling him out for that, too. By the third inning, Heyward was trying to escape the bees by jumping onto the center-field fence.

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“(My side) needs to be tight all the time, right?” Fowler said. “If it was something to worry about, I’d be worried. And I’m not worried at all.”

Fowler had been labeled as an injury-prone player with the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros, and that reputation combined with the qualifying offer made teams hesitant to give up a draft pick – and the bonus-pool money – and make a long-term deal.

The Cubs felt confident they could beat a two-year offer from the Orioles or White Sox, that Fowler felt comfortable enough at Wrigley Field if he needed a soft landing spot.   

At the same time, if the Orioles hadn’t slow-played those negotiations, or the free-agent game of musical chairs played out differently, or the Cubs didn’t generate all that extra revenue with a playoff run into the National League Championship Series, then Fowler is now probably wearing black and orange and playing next to Adam Jones instead of Heyward.

“We got kind of lucky throughout this whole process,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I do think you’re going to see the best of Dexter this year. He had a really good year last year. I think he’s going to surpass that this year.”

Fowler hurt his side hitting the wall trying to make a defensive play over the weekend – not while taking a swing – and that should downplay the injury concerns. But if super-utility guy Javier Baez (thumb) doesn’t have enough time to get ready for Opening Day, then it reinforces the importance of Fowler and how much the Cubs will need their depth to withstand what they believe will be a seven-month marathon.

[MORE CUBS: Time running out for Javier Baez to make Opening Day roster]

“When he walked in, everything kind of like felt right,” Maddon said. “Everything felt good to that point. But then all of a sudden, everything felt right. You could see how that last piece just fit in there. There was a place for him and he fit right into it perfectly.

“I don’t know that we knew how important that piece was until it actually came back to us.” 

Fowler will get $13 million guaranteed this season, the Cubs betting on the leadoff guy who hit 17 homers and scored 102 runs for a 97-win team last year.   

“He’s definitely physically stronger,” Maddon said. “Beyond that, you can truly see that he has a joy for being here. He really does. I absolutely recognize that.

“And I do believe there might be a little bit extra motivation going on right now for the way this all came down this past winter. So I’ll take all that stuff.”

After getting stung at least 10 times by that swarm of bees, Heyward felt good enough to play center field and hit a three-run homer during Monday’s 8-8 Cactus League tie against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

“I told him it’s the cologne he’s wearing,” Fowler said.

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.