Though the Cardinals did not make any transactions during their four-day stay at the Winter Meetings, it did not take long after their return to St. Louis for them to complete their pursuit of a new center fielder. St. Louis announced Friday morning that it had signed center fielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year deal. Financial terms were not disclosed, but MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported that it was for $82.5 million and includes a full no-trade clause.
It was no secret that the Cardinals were zeroed in on Fowler, a dynamic outfielder whom they believe can change the look of their lineup and improve them defensively. He'll likely take over in center, which will allow for Randal Grichuk to shift to left field. General manager John Mozeliak acknowledged on Wednesday that the landscape of the market would likely require him to "step out of your comfort zone to get something done." Signing Fowler cost the Cardinals their first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2017 Draft, since the Cubs made him a qualifying offer. That loss appeared to become more palpable to the Cardinals after they got an understanding of the caliber of prospects other teams were asking for in trade discussions. The Cardinals, in particular, had no interest in dealing top prospect Alex Reyes to address this outfield need. Fowler, 30, entered the free-agent market last offseason hoping to land a multiyear contract, but he found that interest was stifled because of his attachment to the qualifying-offer system. Fowler instead returned to the Cubs under a one-year deal and had a standout season that made him much more coveted this time around. A year after the Cubs lured two of the Cardinals' free agents, Jason Heyward and John Lackey, to Chicago, St. Louis has returned the favor. Fowler emerged as the catalyst the Cubs needed atop their World Series championship lineup. His .393 on-base percentage ranked sixth best in the National League, and the Cubs went 64-20 when Fowler tallied at least one hit. With a career OBP of .366, Fowler would be an intriguing leadoff option for the Cardinals, who could then drop Matt Carpenter into more of a run-production spot in the lineup. Fowler and Carpenter are two of just nine players to post an OBP of at least .365 (minimum 300 plate appearances) in at least four of the past five years. "He's an exciting player, and we've seen him from the other dugout enough to realize he's the kind of player that can make a difference, especially at the top of the order," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Fowler this week. "You watch a Matt Carpenter-style at-bat -- going in and grinding and figuring out a way to get on base and figuring out what that does to an opposition, and what it does to a pitching staff, and how it elevates pitch counts, and how it does create a sense of rhythm in your offense. The more players that you can have like that, I think the better off you're going to be." Fowler also immediately improves the look of the outfield. Moving Grichuk to left would allow the Cardinals to replace the departed Matt Holliday, who signed with the Yankees, with an above-average fielder. Fowler is not regarded as an exceptional center fielder, but he did benefit from the Cubs' decision to position him farther back in the field this past season. After registering -20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 and a -12 DRS in '15, Fowler had +1 DRS in '16. Signing Fowler would complete the biggest item on the Cardinals' to-do list this offseason. The team already made a splash in the relief market by inking lefty Brett Cecil to a four-year, $30.5 million contract in November. Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com