Dexter Fowler's Defection Gives Cardinals a Fighting Chance Against Rival Cubs

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after lining out during the third inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals have the unenviable task of catching up to the Chicago Cubs. It's a mission that will take all their cunning.

Their latest idea: deny the enemy and enrich themselves in one fell swoop.

It's not officially official, but the news circulating Thursday night is that Dexter Fowler is defecting from the Cubs to the Cardinals. Bob Nightengale of USA Today was on it first:

Bob Nightengale @BNightengale

The #Stlcards moving close to deal with Dexter Fowler, hoping to finalize soon

According to Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, Fowler's deal with St. Louis will be for five years and at least $16 million per season. The Cardinals would also lose the No. 19 pick in the 2017 draft.

Nonetheless, a quality center fielder may be about to earn less money than Aroldis Chapman, a one-inning relief pitcher who's in line to get $86 million over five years from the New York Yankees. Simply on those grounds, let's call this a win for the Cardinals. Good job, guys.

But that's not the only reason for them to be giddy. Per Nightengale, Fowler has been the club's top target since the summer. Manager Mike Matheny has made no secret of that, going so far as to compare Fowler to Cardinals All-Star Matt Carpenter.

"The more players that you can have like that, I think the better off you're going to be," the skipper told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

There's more reason to like Fowler now than ever before. The 30-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons. He finished 2016 with an .840 OPS underscored by a .393 on-base percentage. He also played against type by rating well defensively.

With Fowler's age-31 season due up in 2017, there's a natural concern about how well he'll age in the life of a five-year contract. But in his case, there are reasons to believe he'll be fine.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs hits a lead off home run in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by E
Elsa/Getty Images

Although Fowler's still an excellent athlete, his offensive production stems mainly from his head. He has an outstanding approach and an excellent batting eye.

That not only affords him plenty of OBP-boosting walks but ensures that most of his swings are taken at pitches he can hit well. Even if he tops out around 15 home runs per season, this is how he keeps his overall power production above league average.

Meanwhile, Fowler's defensive improvement in 2016 had nothing to do with a random mid-career surge of athleticism. It traced back to a simple positioning adjustment.

"I was getting crushed with the defense," Fowler told Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune in October. "They said I was a bad outfielder. I kind of took offense to that. So I just moved back a few steps."

Assuming Fowler takes this adjustment to St. Louis, he stands to improve a center field spot that finished 24th in ultimate zone rating in 2016. The Cardinals' entire defense would benefit from that, which would satisfy one of the goals they had for their offseason.

"It certainly was a year of inconsistencies," general manager John Mozeliak said in October, per Ben Frederickson of the Post-Dispatch. "You think back to some of our defensive struggles, which put a lot of stress on our rotation and then led to some inconsistencies with the rotation."

On the other side of the ball, ESPN.com's Buster Olney's projection for the new Cardinals lineup looks about right:

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN

Possible STL lineup: CF Fowler, SS Diaz, 1B Carpenter, RF Piscotty, C Molina, 3B Peralta, LF Grichuk, 2B Wong

Fowler can't do much to upgrade a leadoff spot that, mainly thanks to Carpenter, posted a .368 OBP and .848 OPS in 2016.

But allowing Carpenter to move into the middle of the batting order should have the desired effect there. Only five teams got a lower OPS from their Nos. 3 through 6 hitters than the Cardinals in 2016. With an .877 OPS and 49 home runs over the last two seasons, Carpenter should fix that.

Bottom line: The Cardinals will be better after signing one of the top players on the market than they were before. How 'bout that, huh? Amazing.

Now, as good as the Cubs? Not quite yet.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 24: Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs watches the replay after flying out for the final out of the game in their loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The St. Louis Cardina
Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Cubs won 17 more games (and that other thing) than the Cardinals in 2016, so they started the winter in a better place by default.

And although they've lost Fowler, Albert Almora Jr. will probably play better defense in center while a healthy Kyle Schwarber picks up Fowler's offensive slack. The Cubs also filled their vacant closer role with Wade Davis, who is very, very good.

The early projections for 2017 peg the Cubs to once again be the team to beat not just in the NL Central but in the entire league. Per FanGraphs, their projection of 95 wins is the highest of any club.

But with a projection of 84 wins even before Fowler is factored into the mix, the Cardinals do have one thing going for them: They're the team in the NL Central with the best shot of taking down the Cubs.

Brett Cecil
Brett CecilVaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Two of the clubs in the division, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, are so far out of the picture that we might as well be assessing their chances of winning the NFC North. The Pittsburgh Pirates have good individual parts but an incomplete whole and limited resources for fixing it.

With only the (shockingly expensive) Brett Cecil signing going for them before Thursday, the Cardinals were more in a boat with the Pirates than paddling toward the Cubs. With Fowler now set to give them a boost in more ways than one, their odds of overtaking the Cubs are somewhere below laughable.

Faint praise? Sort of. But you never know. Maybe the Cardinals aren't supposed to topple the Cubs, but Frodo wasn't supposed to get the One Ring to Mt. Doom either. Nor was Luke Skywalker supposed to destroy the Death Star.

Sometimes all you can do is give it a shot. The Cardinals are now ready to take theirs.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.