Dexter Fowler

'You go, we go': Dexter Fowler joins Cubs All-Decade Team after successful stint as leadoff man

'You go, we go': Dexter Fowler joins Cubs All-Decade Team after successful stint as leadoff man

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

One number to qualitate Dexter Fowler's value to the Cubs during his tenure on the North Side is 17. As in, 17 different Cubs have led off since the center fielder departed for the Cardinals in free agency following the 2016 season. Since then, the Cubs' leadoff production has been inconsistent, to say the least.

Cubs leadoff men ranked fourth in average (.302) and second in on-base percentage (.366) in MLB in 2018 before dropping to dead last in both categories last season (.212 and .294). The 2019 struggles can partially be attributed to not having Ben Zobrist available, as he stepped away for several months to focus on a personal matter.

It’s not like Cubs leadoff hitters were world-beaters in 2017, though, when they ranked 24th in average (.246) and 18th in OBP (.324).

The Cubs acquired Fowler in a trade with the Astros in January 2015. He was a steady presence atop a Cubs lineup featuring four rookies — Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler — and was a catalyst for the offense.

Fowler hit .250 with a .346 OBP in 2015 while walking at an impressive 12.2 percent rate. He provided pop ahead of the likes of Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, hitting a then-career-high 17 home runs. Fowler wasn’t highly regarded defensively (-12 Defensive Runs Saved) but he improved upon the -20 DRS he posted in 2014.

Fowler hit free agency after the 2015 postseason, and the Orioles seemingly signed him to a three-year deal to play right field. Shockingly, however, Fowler showed up to Cubs spring training on Feb. 25, 2016, signing a one-year deal to return to the North Side.

The season that ensued was a career year for Fowler, who made his first ever All-Star team — and as a starter, nonetheless. He hit .276 with a career-high .393 OBP and graded as a positive defender (1 DRS) in center field.

Cubs fans remember the team winning 103 games in 2016 en route to claiming the NL Central crown. But the season hit a rough patch in June/July, when Fowler missed a month with a right hamstring injury. The Cubs went 11-17 in his absence.

Joe Maddon’s mantra for Fowler was “you go, we go,” and after Fowler returned on July 22, the Cubs went 46-21 the rest of the way. The center fielder lived up to the mantra in Game 7 of the World Series, starting things off with a bang. 

(The Cubs ultimately won that game to claim their first title in 108 years, in case you forgot.)

Fowler was a stellar leadoff man for two years, a guy who grinded out long at-bats and made opposing pitchers work to get him out. He's now spent more seasons playing for the Cardinals, but he'll always be remembered for his role on the 2016 Cubs. He's earned a spot on our All-Decade Team out in center field.

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Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Tuesday night at Wrigley Field was the culmination of a storyline four months in the making: Ben Zobrist returning to man the leadoff spot in the Cubs order.

He didn't wait long to announce his presence in the 6-1 victory, working the count full in each of his first two plate appearances, drawing a walk the second time. He also bunted for a hit to start a rally, stirring up memories of when he did the same thing in L.A. in the 2016 NLCS.

"It's nice to see that at-bat at the top of the batting order — the patience and the accepting of the walk, etc.," Joe Maddon said. "He just sets a great example. That's the at-bat he works. There are times where you'll think, 'Gosh, Zo's in a real slump,' but you look up and he's on base two times a night. And he was tonight. That's just who he is."

The 38-year-old veteran made 14 starts at the top of the lineup before he went on personal leave in early-May and in those games, he posted a .300 batting average and .373 on-base percentage. 

The rest of the Cubs leadoff hitters have a combined .191 average and .266 OBP in 571 plate appearances this season.

As a team (including Zobrist's numbers), the Cubs entered play Tuesday night with far and away the worst OBP out of the top spot — .282, a full 17 points below the Detroit Tigers, who have the worst offense and record in baseball.

It's no wonder everybody's been waiting for Zobrist to come back.

"Believe me, we've missed him a lot this year," Maddon said the day before Zobrist returned. "It's been pretty obvious. [Patience] is the one thing he's always been able to do for any batting order. Even when he's not hitting, he's always going to be on base at least one, maybe two times a game just based on his eye."

Despite not playing for so long, Maddon had no qualms about throwing Zobrist right back into the fire and leading him off in his first start. Maddon felt confident leaning on the veteran's batting eye and ability to set a good example for the rest of the lineup with his professional approach.

Zobrist was also part of the leadoff equation last season, making 27 starts in the spot with a .371 OBP and .810 OPS. But he hit all over the lineup because the 2018 Cubs didn't have as much trouble getting production from their leadoff hitters — they finished second in MLB with a .366 OBP atop the order, behind only the 108-win Boston Red Sox.

This season, there has been no right mix.

Kyle Schwarber has spent more time than any other Cub in the top spot this year and while he hit for power, he posted just a .304 OBP in 56 games (253 plate appearances). 

Jason Heyward has been the leadoff man lately, but he's sporting just a .554 OPS in those 32 games (147 plate appearances) and is hitless in his last 28 at-bats.

Albert Almora Jr. (14 games) and Daniel Descalso (11 games) have also seen extended time up there as Maddon has tried to mix-and-match with just about everybody else at one point or another — Robel Garcia, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Tony Kemp, Willson Contreras.

"Last year, it was a source of conversation and we didn't have a typical guy," Maddon said. "But if you looked at our numbers at the end of the year, they were actually pretty good. I don't think we're rivaling that moment yet this year. It is nice when the guy on top is definitely stirring it up a little bit. 

"You can't underestimate when you get guys on at the top that are consistently on base, what that does for the rest of the group."

Of course, the leadoff spot has been a source of constant debate surrounding this team since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

In July, Maddon asked the veteran Heyward to step up and try to fill the role and has commended the way he embraced the role, even if the results weren't always there. When he was first moved into the leadoff spot, Heyward asked his manager to be patient with him up there, but the Cubs can't afford to be too patient right now with a 3.0-game deficit in the NL Central standings and only 24 games left to play after Tuesday.

Heyward has hit just .147 with a .252 OBP in the top spot, but the Cubs are 22-10 when he leads off.

"He's been great," Maddon said of Heyward, while also acknowledging Zobrist presents the team with different options in lineup construction. "He understands and he's battled really hard and our record with him hitting leadoff has been pretty darn good. Listen, he's such an important part of us winning. 

"[Moving him to leadoff] was out of necessity as much as anything else and he knew that, but I have so much respect for him as a player. His intent is to play the game properly every day and win. That's his intent. It's not about him so much. It's about everything else, and that's what I really appreciate about him."

Zobrist won't play every day, but when he does, expect to see a lot of him in the leadoff spot as the Cubs work to optimize their lineup in search of some offensive consistency. 

"My body feels pretty good right now," he said. "I'm a little fatigued, probably just the mental fatigue of getting back into it. But we got an off-day tomorrow and I'll feel pretty good on Thursday is my guess. I feel great physically, still kinda getting into the swing of routine mentally."

Asked about his workload down the stretch, he joked it should be obvious when he'll need a break:

"I think probably if I get fatigued, it'll probably show in the numbers, so they'll know when to sit me."

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Cardinals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Cardinals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

St. Louis Cardinals

2018 record: 88-74, 3rd in NL Central

Offseason additions: Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller, Matt Wieters, Chris Beck, Drew Robinson

Offseason departures: Luke Weaver, Tyson Ross, Bud Norris, Matt Adams, Carson Kelly, Patrick Wisdom

X-factor: Marcell Ozuna

The Cardinals traded for Ozuna last winter, expecting to get the hitter that just put up 37 homers, 124 RBI, a .924 OPS and hit .312 while coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances.

Instead, they got a solid hitter who was only slightly above average (106 OPS+) and saw a major dip in power (23 homers, 88 RBI). 

Which player is the real Marcell Ozuna?

He's still only 28 and is a free agent after this season. The Cardinals are counting on him to be one of their big bats in the middle of the lineup, likely hitting cleanup and lending protection to Goldschmidt.

We know Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter are going to hit if they're healthy and we know guys like Paul DeJong, Yadi Molina, Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader will be thorns in the Cubs' side at various points in 2019. But we don't know what type of player Ozuna will be.

You could say the same thing about Dexter Fowler, who has hit just .230 with a .739 OPS in a Cardinals uniform after signing an $82.5 million deal with the organization before the 2017 season. He still has three years left on his contract and if he can't regain his form, will the Cardinals be forced to stick a guy making more than $16 million a year on the bench in favor of better offensive options Jose Martinez or Tyler O'Neill?

Projected lineup

1. Matt Carpenter - 3B
2. Paul DeJong - SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt - 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna - LF
5. Dexter Fowler - RF
6. Yadier Molina - C
7. Kolten Wong - 2B
8. Harrison Bader - CF

Projected rotation

1. Miles Mikolas
2. Jack Flaherty
3. Adam Wainwright
4. Michael Wacha
5. Dakota Hudson

Outlook

The last time the Cardinals were in the playoffs, they watched as Javy Baez sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy with a blast to the right-centerfield bleachers. That 3-run shot came off John Lackey and both he and Jason Heyward had yet to don a Cubs uniform. Only one pitcher that threw for the Cubs in that game is still on the team (Pedro Strop).

Oh yeah, and the Cubs were still a year away from winning their first championship in more than a century.

In other words: It was a long time ago. It feels like a lifetime given how often the Cardinals were in the postseason prior to 2016.

So yeah, this organization and their fanbase are hungry as hell to get back to October. They proved that this winter.

The Cardinals didn't make a ton of moves over the offseason, but the decisions they made are very impactful — trading for Goldschmidt and signing Miller and Wieters.

Then they went out and reportedly extended Goldschmidt through the 2024 season. He is one of the best players in the NL and brings a legitimate stud to the middle of the lineup. Now the Cubs are forced to face him 19 times a season for at least the next half-decade and he carries a .353/.471/.699 slash line (1.170 OPS) against Chicago pitching in 43 career games. (The somewhat good news is that Goldschmidt also tears up Brewers pitching to the tune of a .366/.478/.652 slash line in 46 career games.)

Miller had a rough 2018 season, sporting a 4.24 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching only 34 innings due to injuries. But he's still only 33 and was arguably the best reliever in the game from 2014-17 when he posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 14.5 K/9 in 260 appearances. If he's even close to that pitcher again, that's a huge stabilizing force at the back end of the Cardinals bullpen. However, he's had a really rough go of it in spring training thus far:

Wieters has never turned into the star many were expecting him to become, but he'll be good depth for St. Louis behind Molina.

This offense should be just fine, especially once Jedd Gyorko returns from injury and if they can somehow find a way to get Martinez and O'Neill in the lineup often.

The defense is also going to be great, with speedster Bader chasing everything down in the outfield and Molina/Wong/DeJong up the middle.

The pitching staff is where most of the questions lie. 

Carlos Martinez has been their ace in the past, but he experienced shoulder issues this spring and it's unknown how much time he'll miss or if he'll be a starter or reliever when he returns. He only pitched 118.2 innings last year due to the same injury.

Veteran relievers Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson are also both dealing with arm injuries and not expected to be in the Opening Day bullpen.

Miles Mikolas was an incredible find for the Cardinals last year and after a fantastic season (18-4, 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), they made sure to lock him up for another four years. 23-year-old Jack Flaherty was a Top-50 prospect entering 2018 and exploded onto the MLB scene with a very good season that included a ridiculous 10.8 K/9 rate. He looks like a potential Cy Young contender this year and gives the Cardinals a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation even without Martinez.

After that, however, it's up in the air. Adam Wainwright is 37, Michael Wacha has been injured/inconsistent and rookie Dakota Hudson (just named the team's fifth starter Thursday) has only 27.1 MLB innings under his belt.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, 22-year-old Jordan Hicks is looking like the closer with his 100+ mph fastball, but he also has some control issues (5.2 BB/9 in his rookie season) and blew more games (7) than he saved (6) last year. After him and Miller, there's a hodge podge of unproven guys like John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve and others. Former top prospect Alex Reyes is looming as a potential X-factor in the bullpen, but he has pitched only 27 innings since he had Tommy John surgery after the 2016 season.

Expect this to be a three-team race in the NL Central all year and it would not be at all surprising to see the Cardinals on top come October. 

But for now, I'll put them just behind the Cubs only because I have question marks about their outfielders (Ozuna and Fowler) and some of their pitching. I also think the Cubs have more depth than any team in the division and are better built for the marathon that is a 162-game season.

Prediction: 2nd in NL Central, wild-card team

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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