With Dexter Fowler in St. Louis, Cubs see Kyle Schwarber as a potential leadoff answer

With Dexter Fowler in St. Louis, Cubs see Kyle Schwarber as a potential leadoff answer

Dexter Fowler buttoned up a white No. 25 Cardinals jersey and put on a red St. Louis hat, posing for the cameras during Friday morning’s press conference at Busch Stadium.

Fowler stood in between Mike Matheny, the St. Louis manager who now has a new leadoff guy at the top of his lineup card, and John Mozeliak, the general manager who helped structure a five-year, $82.5 million contract that goes against The Cardinal Way.

That visual might be disorienting for Cubs fans who just watched what will probably be the best two seasons of Fowler’s career. But Theo Epstein’s front office understandably wanted to get younger, upgrade defensively and preserve some financial flexibility for the future, planning to go with Albert Almora Jr. and ex-Cardinal Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare.

“I’ll be forever grateful that I was a Cub,” Fowler said. “We made history, won a World Series. But I guess that door is closed, and, you know, I’m a Cardinal now. And we’re trying to make history over here as well.”

Let’s not get carried away with all the talk about Fowler being such a great leader and magnetic clubhouse personality. There were enough questions about him that the draft-pick compensation dragged down his market to the point where he accepted a $13 million guarantee in spring training. But he is a switch-hitter who sees pitches and works at-bats (.366 career on-base percentage) and can ignite an offense when healthy.

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon might not go with a traditional leadoff hitter in 2017. But this lineup should still score 800-plus runs again, factoring in a full season of Kyle Schwarber, projected growth from MVP Kris Bryant and All Stars Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell and an anticipated bounce-back year from Jason Heyward after the $184 million outfielder had been one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

 “Schwarber is not a bad name, Kyle is not a bad name at all,” Maddon said when asked about his leadoff hitter during this week’s winter meetings at National Harbor in Maryland. “(Ben) Zobrist isn’t a bad name. There are different guys to consider right there.

“Actually, a couple years ago, (when) Kyle came up and Dexter was still there, I considered leading Kyle off and putting Dexter second. But I had all the dudes do all the work — all our nerds did all the work — and they really liked Fowler 1 and they liked Schwarber 2, just based on our data.

“So I went with that, and it worked out really, really well. So now all of the sudden, Dexter is not there anymore. It’s not impossible to consider Kyle in that spot, Zobrist in that spot.

“I don’t know if we’re going to do anything differently during the course of this offseason that might cause me to think differently, but there’s not a whole lot of other candidates.”

Fowler bet on himself after the Baltimore Orioles dragged out negotiations over a reported three-year deal in the $30 million range, shocking the baseball world when he showed up in Arizona in late February. It paid off with a staggering contract that will add another level of intrigue to a rivalry that has already seen Heyward and pitcher John Lackey switch sides.

Fowler will be in Cardinal red on Opening Night 2017 when the Cubs begin their World Series title defense at Busch Stadium.

“It’s bittersweet,” Fowler said. “Now they’re the rival. But you still got some boys over there. We’ll always be boys. We won a championship together. But when you get on the field, it’s ‘go time.’ Now we’re playing against each other.”

Dexter Fowler: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry 'almost even'

Dexter Fowler: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry 'almost even'

The Cubs have the World Series trophy, and that's the ultimate in bragging rights.

But new Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler — who helped the Cubs win that first championship since 1908 — thinks there's not too much separating the Central Division rivals.

Fowler officially switched sides in the rivalry Friday, signing a five-year deal with the Cardinals and getting an introduction in St. Louis.

"Playing over there and playing against the Cardinals, you see them and they weren't that far away," Fowler said at his introductory press conference Friday morning. "Obviously they beat up on us, we beat up on them. It was almost even. It was one day or another. I can't put my finger on one thing or another, but we're definitely close."

Even though the Cubs are on top of the baseball world right now — and the Cardinals missed out on the playoffs last season — the numbers back up Fowler's claim.

Only one game separated the two in their regular-season series in 2016, the Cubs taking 10 games and the Cardinals winning nine. The year prior, both teams won more than 97 games and reached the postseason, with the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals in the NLDS. During the regular season, though, the Cardinals won 11 of the 19 matchups and the Cubs won eight.

The two teams have indirectly swapped All-Star outfielders in each of the last two offseasons. Jason Heyward signed a huge deal with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season. And now Fowler will be in the Cardinals' Opening Day lineup in 2017.

That ought to add even more fuel to the fire in this epic rivalry.

But the rings are the thing, of course, so can the Cardinals challenge the Cubs as the North Siders attempt to make it back-to-back championships in 2017?

"I can't tell what the future has in mind, but I feel like this team has a chance to win a World Series," Fowler said.