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Dexter Fowler is playing better, but the St. Louis Cardinals still have better options

His power and production numbers are still virtually non-existent. But it’s good to see embattled St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler showing signs of life when it comes to getting on base.

Thanks to injuries to starting center fielder Harrison Bader and fourth outfielder Tyler O’Neill, Fowler has been shifted from right field where the Redbirds were trying to hide his shrinking range back to his preferred center field position. Like Matt Carpenter can’t hit anywhere but in the leadoff spot, it seems Fowler can only produce like he did earlier in his career when he’s in center.

As a right fielder this year, Fowler is a .250 hitter with a .318 slugging percentage. As a center fielder, he is batting .353 with a .429 slugging percentage. He’s still only got two RBI. But his .274 batting average and the fact that he’s been hitting more line drives lately is reason to hope maybe there is some life left in the veteran outfielder’s bat. Still, after he Jose Cansecoed a ball at the center field wall over the weekend, the Cardinals can’t afford to put Fowler back in the middle of the outfield just to spark his bat. He’s going to have to find a way to produce in other positions.

I still believe Fowler might be best served to play as a glorified fourth outfielder, starting a couple times a week in right and once or twice in left and center. Then he could rest a day or two and keep his legs fresh while being protecting from less favorable pitching match ups. In theory, Fowler’s switch-hitting abilities would make him a nice weapon off the bench on days he doesn’t start. Fowler could easily get 400-450 at-bats a season in that sort of role.

Ironically, as Fowler is playing the best baseball he’s mustered since 2017, Jose Martinez has made a compelling case that he, not Fowler, should be the starting right fielder. Martinez is hitting .333 with several key hits lately plus he showed some smart base running against the New York Mets and uncharacteristically made a couple of nice defensive plays. Martinez deserves to play and he’s not going to take time away from left fielder Marcell Ozuna who has been the team’s hottest hitter lately, at least besides infielder Paul DeJong. Unless manager Mike Shildt decides to risk playing Fowler in center, he’s the one who stands to losing playing time to Martinez.

Also a concern is what their injury issues are doing to the long-term prospects of O’Neill and Bader. Not only have Fowler and Martinez taken advantage of additional playing time, but prospect Lane Thomas has also joined the big league pictured, hitting a home run in his St. Louis debut, only the 10th player to accomplish that feat in franchise history.

I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Neill finds himself in Class AAA Memphis for a rehab assignment once he’s healthy. But it would be a waste if he ends up mired in the minor leagues again. Touted as the prospective left fielder of the big league club in 2020, O’Neill has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues after mashing baseballs there last season before getting the call to join the parent club. He needs to face big league pitchers now to improve his plate discipline to see if he can make a go of things as a starting big league player. While it’s important to win now, the Cardinals need to find playing time for O’Neill and Bader because they’re the future of this club.

Marcell Ozuna’s future with the Cardinals

It was a foregone conclusion in spring training that Ozuna would be allowed to depart St. Louis as a free agent at the end of this season. But with the way he’s hitting, can St. Louis afford to turn its back on the club’s cleanup hitter? Ozuna isn’t the player he was two years ago with the Miami Marlins. It’s tough to imagine what happened to his formerly golden glove. But he’s still a multi-tool player who can hurt the opposition in many ways. I think the Cardinals’ interest level may be increasing.

But that doesn’t mean the team could get a deal done if it wants to. I can’t see the Cardinals giving Ozuna a deal anywhere close to what the team shelled out for Paul Goldschmidt, even though the Goldschmidt contract is a remarkable bargain. St. Louis is likely going to be scared off by Ozuna’s lingering shoulder issues and I would be shocked if the club was interested in a contract longer than two or three years. The only way Ozuna is wearing the Birds of the Bat in 2020 is if the Cardinals give him a qualifying offer and, fearing the frosty free agent market of the past couple of off-seasons, he decides to accept — or if Ozuna tests the market and can find no takers so he accepts a pillow deal from St. Louis.

The extension the Cardinals signed with Matt Carpenter last week might affect the clubs ability or willingness to sign Ozuna to a long-term contract. The Birds, who had a ton of financial wiggle room after this year, now have lost a great deal of it with commitments to Carpenter, Goldschmidt and Miles Mikolas, although the team still seems likely to save money by parting ways with Michael Wacha, Luke Gregerson and Jedd Gyorko.