St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals make free-agency splash, sign ex-Cub Fowler

For the St. Louis Cardinals, there was more to Dexter Fowler than his ability on the baseball field.

The Cardinals on Friday signed the switch-hitting center fielder, who spent the last two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, to a five-year, $82.5-million free-agent contract, hoping he will be a spark at the top of the batting order.

It’s the largest contract the Cardinals have given to a player who wasn’t already in their organization, exceeding the five-year, $80-million deal they gave last offseason to right-handed pitcher Mike Leake. Fowler, 30, also received full no-trade protection.

“One of the things we wanted to address was athleticism. We wanted to (find) someone that could hit at the top of the order, if possible, to allow us to give us flexibility with (Matt) Carpenter, and we also were looking to find someone that was extremely confident on the basepaths,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said. “I think we were able to accomplish that.

“But Mr. Fowler is more than that. There’s always a baseball angle in all decisions, but there’s also the human element to that. One of things that I think we’re so excited about (with) Dexter is he’s a student of the game ... We think about him as a leader. More importantly, he wants to lead. He wants to have a voice in that clubhouse. He’s someone that wants to be part of our community. He wants to be involved in the city of St. Louis.”

Fowler will cost the Cardinals their first-round pick in the 2017 draft (19th overall) because he received a $17.2-million qualifying offer from the Cubs that he rejected.

Fowler helped the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908 by batting .276 with 25 doubles, seven triples, 13 home runs and 48 RBIs in 125 games. His .393 on-base percentage from the top of the order led the major leagues and helped him score 84 runs. Fowler scored 102 runs in 2015 as the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series.

Fowler can’t wait to get started and has always been impressed by the Cardinals.

“This is a baseball city,” said Fowler, who will wear No. 25. “The fans, every time you come here, you see red everywhere. That’s awesome to see. Even going through our parade (in Chicago), you could see Cardinals fans out there. They’ve won World Series, (and) they’re poised to be back in the World Series and win again. That was a big part of my decision as well.”

Fowler said he believes the Cardinals are capable of turning the tables on the Cubs.

“I can’t tell what the future has in mind,” Fowler said. “But I feel like this team has a chance to win the World Series. That was a big part in coming (here). Winning is addictive. The Cardinals are always in the hunt.”

The Cardinals were in discussions with other teams about acquiring a center fielder this week at the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md. But the asking prices for players like Charlie Blackmon of Colorado, Lorenzo Cain of Kansas City and Adam Eaton of the Chicago White Sox, who was eventually traded to the Washington Nationals, were too high.

Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said Fowler, who always intrigued the Cardinals, was a player the team coveted. It came down to making the financial commitment to make it happen.

“From day one, he was someone that we were hoping to sign,” Mozeliak said. “We certainly wanted to get this done. We’re excited we got this done. Late Wednesday night, when we were shaking hands on this, it was a great feeling because there’s so many positive attributes of what he does for us, not only on the field, but off the field. It was just a win-win if we could do it.”

The lineup

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will bat Fowler first, but he said little about the look of the rest of his lineup, with more moves possible this winter.

But Matheny said Fowler gives the Cardinals the elements of speed, basepath aggressiveness and switch-hitting prowess.

“You obviously have a great presence at the top of the lineup,” Matheny said. “This is the guy we were hoping to be sitting up here with. We’re excited about how well we believe he’s going to fit into our lineup and our clubhouse.

“We’ve seen (Fowler) from both sides of the plate, how effective he can be and how he sets the tone. We haven’t had that piece in our lineup, as a switch-hitter, in a while. It’s a nice part to have.”

Fowler’s presence will likely drop Carpenter into the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the order, ahead of or directly behind Aledmys Diaz, or perhaps Stephen Piscotty.

“Carp is a guy that definitely takes pitches and takes a great at-bat,” Fowler said. “You look at it from the other side, and you know it’s going to be a battle each and every time you face him. He can hit for average, he can put the ball over the wall ... and he gets on base. He takes the close pitches like I do.”

Fowler, who batted .293 against left-handed pitching, has a career slash line at Busch Stadium of .282/.369/.489. He has six home runs in 131 career at-bats at Busch.

“I see the ball well here,” he said. “That’s huge. It’s definitely a hitter’s park for me. I’m excited to get out and see what it’s got.”

Defensively, Fowler has emerged the last two years and expects Busch Stadium to be somewhat less challenging than Wrigley Field and Coors Field in Colorado.

“The wind’s not as bad (as Wrigley),” Fowler said. “Center field is center field. I think I’ve played in one of the most difficult outfields, being at Coors Field. Playing at Wrigley, with the wind, I’ve been weathered to withstand anything.”

Turning the page

Fowler loved Chicago and said playing against the Cubs will be “bittersweet” and “weird.”

Fowler almost left the team when he was a free agent last offseason. A $33-million deal with the Baltimore Orioles fell through, and Fowler in spring training returned on a one-year, $8-million deal with the Cubs and responded with one of the best seasons of his career.

Fowler became one of the top offseason targets for a few teams. When the Cubs signed former Cardinal Jon Jay and announced they would platoon Jay in center with Albert Almora Jr., it became evident that Fowler would not return to Chicago.

“They did me the courtesy of giving me a call before they signed Jay, just to let me know, which was very professional of Theo (Epstein) and them,” Fowler said. “I’ll be forever grateful that I was a Cub and we made history. We won a World Series. But that door is closed, and I’m a Cardinal now, and we’re trying to make history over here as well.

“After you win, it’s like, ‘Let’s do this again.’ It’s a great feeling, all the emotions. ... Now (the Cubs) are the rival. I’ve 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 one another.”

Flying to St. Louis

Fowler was on a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to St. Louis on Thursday when a fan logged onto Wi-Fi and read that Fowler had come to terms with the Cardinals.

Fowler, who was trying to take a nap, was alerted when the fan, an adult man, snapped a picture of him. The photo was posted and made the rounds on social media.

That’s how many people learned that Fowler was heading to the Cardinals.

“I fell asleep,” Fowler said. “A flight attendant came up to me and then this guy comes ... and he’s like, ‘Is this true?’” Fowler said. “I said, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t know.’ And I just went back to sleep. It was definitely funny and definitely one for the books.”

Fowler doesn’t mind a little craziness, wherever it occurs. In the clubhouse, Fowler prefers being relaxed and leaving room for fun.

“For me, if I go into the clubhouse, we’re going to have fun,” Fowler said. “Even if the clubhouse is not having fun, we’re going to have fun. Win, lose or draw, let’s have fun, because I believe that’s going to make us better. I feel like I can do that in a clubhouse. I know we’ll get some guys out of their shell if they are in a shell.

“I have a personality. I don’t mind talking.”

More moves?

The Cardinals have been linked to power-hitting, defensively challenged free agents Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo, possibly as candidates to play first base.

But the Cardinals have already announced Carpenter will play first while also renewing their commitment to Kolten Wong at second base.

“With regard to what’s next, I think for us it’s probably going to be looking more at complementary pieces to what we currently have,” Mozeliak said. “There’s no doubt we still have some work to do, but in terms of maybe making something like a bolder-type move, I don’t envision that at this time.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm