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Hochman: Debating Fowler's possible offensive prowess entering final season of his contract with Cardinals

Hochman: Debating Fowler's possible offensive prowess entering final season of his contract with Cardinals

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Cardinals summer camp 7/15

The Cardinals' Dexter Fowler looks on during summer camp at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (Post-Dispatch file photo by Chris Kohley)

In a delightful Zoom videoconference for fans this past weekend, Dexter Fowler spoke of his bespoke fashion sense — he showed off his extravagant Jordan sneaker collection, discussed his disdain for sport coats and shared that he’s a “cologne connoisseur” who will stick with a certain scent if he’s hitting well.

The Cardinals right fielder joked that he was the “old guy” on the “Best Dressed Birds” panel, so that makes him the “fashion vet.” When the moderator tried to tell him he’s not that old, Fowler smiled and pointed out that he is “baseball old . . . er.”

Fowler indeed turns 35 in March, which makes him, categorically, baseball older. He’s in his last year of his much-discussed contract (five years, $82.5 million). The Cards are betting that some of the production they paid for will be fashionably late.

He did have a very strong 2017 with the Cards. But after three average-to-below-average seasons, could this year be his second-best year with St. Louis? That’s a fair bet. But just what does that mean? There is a chasm between the numbers in his best year (an .851 OPS in that 2017 season) and his current second-best season (.754 OPS in 2019).

Fowler has dealt with a lot of tough stuff since arriving to town. He’s had foot injuries. He battled depression and was brave to speak publicly about that fight. And last season he revealed he lives with ulcerative colitis, which can be brutal on the digestive track.

Clearly, his numbers have been low in 2018, 2019 and 2020, from batting average (.180, .238, .233) to OPS+, which captures a hitter’s offensive prowess, with 100 the league average (59, 100, 92). But you also can point to times when Fowler was really finding his game until it was cut short. Such as last year, when he had a fantastic .832 OPS on Sept. 1, but then went on the injured list to treat his colitis. He returned for the final eight games and his .322 OPS in that stretch brought his season stats way down.

And per 2019, Fowler deserves a bunch of credit for his role in the Cards’ return to the postseason.

On July 1, 2019, the Cardinals were 41-41. It looked as if it would be the fourth straight season they’d miss the playoffs. But Fowler had a July OPS of .806 and an August OPS of .849, and by Sept. 1 the Cards were 75-59. They indeed made the playoffs, and in the biggest game of the year — Game 5 of the National League Division Series, in Atlanta — Fowler had two at-bats in the first inning. He walked (and scored) to lead off the game, and when he came up again, he doubled off reliever Max Fried. That drove in two, making a 5-0 game suddenly 7-0 (the Cards, of course, scored 10 in the first and won 13-1).

It’s been well-documented that the team’s overall outfield production has been low the past few years. Dylan Carlson should improve it in his first full year in the lineup. And signing a platoon batter such as Joc Pederson could up the OPS. But to some out-of-towners — and some St. Louis fans who range from antsy to angry — it looks peculiar that the Cards yearn for more outfield production but are sticking with Fowler in the outfield.

Here’s Mike Shildt’s defense — the Cardinals manager told the Post-Dispatch: “Look, Dexter’s really contributed to this club making the playoffs the past two years. There’s no question about it. He’s done it on the field. He’s done it off the field. He’s really engaged in every area. I couldn’t ask for more out of Dexter, he’s been great. His level of engagement has been pretty impressive. His work ethic has been really good. He’s gotten out there and worked on his defense — which has been a nice part of this. He should. But he’s really been doing extra work on his defense and has done some things that I’m pretty sure when Tyler O’Neill looks over from left, he’ll go, ‘Man, that’s how this is done.’ There is some residual benefit to what that looks like. And then Tyler goes and wins the Gold Glove (in 2020).

“The expectations of Dexter are more of the same. I can’t ask him to do any more than he’s done, because he’s done everything we’ve asked and wanted him to do, and just continue to work like he’s been working, play like he’s played for us, and be a positive light in the clubhouse and a support system for our players and, shoot, for our staff as well. That’s all I can ask. Those are the expectations, and we’ll continue to expect that.”

But the expectations must include offensive production that’s at least near his career average of OPS, which is .776. The Cards’ division is diluted. He’ll get all the chances he can from Shildt to play through slumps. And, as stated, he was having a good run in 2020 until he suddenly had to essentially miss September.

Fowler opened up during both of his Zoom sessions for the Cardinals’ online Winter Warm-Up. Some of the highlights from Sunday’s panel called “Cardinals in the Outfield” included:

• When Fowler was growing up, “believe it or not, I used to catch,” so that’s why the former backstop catches fly balls chest-high.

“My dad used to tell me to catch the ball with two hands and always look the ball into your glove,” he said. “That’s just how I’ve learned. When I have it up high, It’s like you lose it for a second.

“I loved catching. It was fun. I used to talk to hitters a lot and just mess with them. If you know me, I like to mess with people.”

• When Fowler practiced long throws with his mentor, Barry Bonds, the former slugger would demand accuracy. While playing catch, “If it was a little bit over here or a little bit over here,” Fowler said, “he wouldn’t even move — he let the ball go. And I had to go get it.”

• As a youngster, Fowler’s favorite player was “‘Junior’ for sure — Ken Griffey Jr. was my guy growing up. Just playing center field and the way he went and got the ball and how much fun he was having when he played the game — he made it look easy. That’s what I modeled my game after.”

Cards fans are hoping Fowler can have a season at age 35 like “The Kid” did. In his previous three years, Griffey battled injuries (averaging just 69 games per year) and his batting average significantly dropped. But at age 35, in 2005, Griffey hit .301 with 35 homers in 128 games for Cincinnati. His OPS was .946. Griffey was Griffey again.

Many people hope — and one manager believes — Dex can be Dex again.

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

bhochman@post-dispatch.com

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