Dexter Fowler

Why the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler after the 2016 season

When the Cardinals signed all-star outfielder Dexter Fowler on December 9, 2016, it marked the largest contract the Cardinals had ever awarded a player who wasn’t already wearing the birds on the bat.

In wooing Fowler from the rival Cubs with a five-year, $82.5 million contract, the Cardinals exceeded the five-year, $80 million contract they had reached with starting pitcher Mike Leake the previous offseason. It was part of a relatively splashy offseason for the Cardinals, who signed reliever Brett Cecil to a four-year, $30.5 million deal a few weeks earlier.

“There is this perceived notion that we’re never going to get players in the free-agent market,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “This year we spent more than $100 million in aggregate. The commitment from (chairman Bill) DeWitt down is real. I hope what people realize is that we’re committed to winning, we are committed to trying to improve, and we do recognize the areas we can do that, and we hope we addressed it.”[1]

Fowler’s contract included annual salaries of $14.5 million plus a $10 million signing bonus to be paid in $1 million installments on July 1 and October 1 in each year. It also included a full no-trade clause and variety of bonuses, including $25,000 for a Silver Slugger Award, $50,000 for making the all-star game and for winning a Gold Glove Award, $100,000 for being named League Championship Series MVP, and $150,000 for being named World Series MVP. He also would receive a $250,000 bonus for winning the NL MVP Award, $150,000 for placing second, and $100,000 for finishing third through fifth.[2]

Fowler, who sought a similar long-term contract prior to the 2016 season but wound up returning to the Cubs on a one-year, $8 million deal, knew that Chicago would not be an option in 2017 after the Cubs signed former Cardinal outfielder Jon Jay one week earlier.

“I kind of had a sense,” Fowler said. “They made a courtesy call before they signed Jay. I’ll be forever grateful I was a Cub.”[3]

Meanwhile, Cubs fans were equally grateful that Fowler had remained in Chicago in 2016. Batting leadoff, he hit .276 and scored 84 runs with a .393 on-base percentage that ranked sixth in the National League. In the Cubs’ march to the World Series title, Fowler went 9-for-27 (.333) with six runs scored vs. the Dodgers in the NLCS, then added a pair of solo home runs in the World Series, which marked the Cubs’ first world championship since 1908.

With a .293 average against left-handed pitching on the season and a career batting line of .282/.369/.489 at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were excited by what Fowler could provide atop the St. Louis lineup.

“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. “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.”[4]

In Chicago, Cubs manager Joe Maddon coined a nickname for Fowler to describe his importance in setting the tone.

“Joe came up with the nickname ‘You Go, We Go,’ and that’s always stuck with me,” Fowler said. “Now that I’m with the Cardinals, I feel like if I go, we all go.”[5]

With the addition of Fowler, the Cardinals planned to move Carpenter out of the leadoff spot and into a position to drive in more runs. With Fowler and Carpenter at the top of the lineup, the Cardinals suddenly had two of just nine players in baseball who had posted an on-base percentage of at least .365 in four of the previous five years.

Fowler’s addition also allowed the Cardinals to move Randal Grichuk to left field, where he would replace Matt Holliday, who recently signed with the Yankees.

“From day one, (Fowler) 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.”[6]

Because the Cubs made a qualifying offer to Fowler, the Cardinals had to give up their first-round pick in the 2017 Draft, which would have been 19th overall (the Cubs used the pick to take pitcher Alex Lange out of Louisiana State University with the 30th pick). For the Cardinals’ front office, that was still better than meeting the asking prices teams were seeking for available center fielders. The Belleville News-Democrat reported that the Cardinals were in discussions with other teams at the winter meetings, but found the demands for Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon, Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain, and Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton were more than the Cardinals were willing to meet.[7]

In those discussions, one name kept coming up: Alex Reyes. It was a price Mozeliak was unwilling to pay, and as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, the Cardinals’ farm system didn’t offer any alternatives that intrigued potential trade partners, even when they explored bundling multiple prospects together to acquire a center fielder.[8]

At the winter meetings in National Harbor, Maryland, Mozeliak was asked whether the high cost of trading for a center fielder made him prefer to spend money rather than trade capital.

“It’s not what I would rather do,” he said. “It’s what I feel we think makes the most sense from an investment standpoint. I’ve always told you, what’s the acquisition cost? The acquisition cost could be players. The acquisition cost could be money. And sometimes they’re not always equal. Sometimes you have more money. Sometimes you have more talent. We’re trying to wade through that.”[9]

A Georgia native, Fowler had been the Rockies’ 14th-round draft pick out of Milton High School in 2004. By signing with Colorado, Fowler passed up his commitment to the University of Miami and an offer from Harvard University. After hitting .335 with a .431 on-base percentage at Double-A Tulsa, Fowler made his MLB debut in September 2008. He became an everyday player for the Rockies the following season.

Fowler played five full seasons in Colorado, posting a .270/.365/.423 batting line before he was traded to the Astros ahead of the 2014 season. He spent one year in Houston before signing with the Cubs. Across two seasons in Chicago, Fowler hit .261/.367/.427 with 30 homers and 186 runs scored.

“One of the things we wanted to address was athleticism,” Mozeliak said. “We wanted to address someone who could hit at the top of the order if possible, to give us flexibility with Carpenter. And we were also trying to find someone that was extremely competent on the basepaths. And I think we were able to accomplish that.”[10]

Mozeliak also expressed his appreciation for Fowler’s clubhouse presence, which was so strong that the Cubs and the Chicago media couldn’t help but wish the best for him even as he signed with their archrivals.

“Fowler’s intangibles are what set him apart,” Paul Sullivan wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “He was a perfect fit in that clubhouse, providing a calming presence that rubbed off on some of his younger teammates such as (Anthony Rizzo), Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez.”

“If I go into a 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. Either way, we’ll get the guys out of their shell if they are in the shell.”[11]

In retrospect, it’s fair to wonder whether Fowler had that much fun in St. Louis. In 2017, his first season in St. Louis, Fowler hit .264/.363/.488 with 18 homers, 64 RBIs, and 68 runs scored, posting the second highest on-base plus slugging (.851) of his career. At age 32, however, he suffered through the worst season of his career in 2018, as his batting line fell to .180/.278/.298. Fowler played in just 90 games as Jose Martinez and Harrison Bader each began to bite into his playing time.

“I was depressed,” Fowler said after the season. “That’s what I was. I got mad that I let it get to me. I should be mentally stronger than that. I shouldn’t have let it weight me down as much as it did. But I was. I was depressed.”[12]

Fowler bounced back with a better 2019 season, hitting .238/.317/.389 with 19 homers, 67 RBIs, and 69 runs scored. After the COVID-shortened 2020 season, however, the Cardinals traded Fowler to the Angels along with $12.75 million to help cover most of the $14.5 million remaining on his contract. In addition to freeing up playing time in an outfield that included younger options in Tyler O’Neill, Bader, and Dylan Carlson, the trade acknowledged that the 34-year-old Fowler no longer had a clear role in St. Louis.

In 389 games with the Cardinals, Fowler hit .233/.334/.408.

“Fowler’s saga with the Cardinals is a complicated one, but ultimately his five-year and $82.5 million contract will be viewed as a regrettable deal,” wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson. “Looking back, expectations were unfairly oversized. Fowler was going to singlehandedly make the Cardinals fun again, a heavy assignment for a club that was buttoned all the way up under former manager Mike Matheny. Fowler was going to stir the lineup from the top of the order as a speedy switch-hitter. Fowler was going to play a defensively sound center field. Fowler was going to do it all, at once, and for five seasons. Reality had other ideas.”[13]

Fowler played just seven games for the Angels before suffering a torn ACL that prematurely ended his season. He signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays for 2022, but appeared in just three minor-league games before he requested his release. In January 2023, he announced his retirement, concluding a big-league career that spanned 14 seasons and 1,460 games.

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[1] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals believe Fowler brings ‘infectious’ personality to club,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 12, 2016.

[2] Mark Gonzales, “Fowler cashes in with Cards,” Chicago Tribune, December 10, 2016.

[3] Mark Gonzales, “Fowler cashes in with Cards,” Chicago Tribune, December 10, 2016.

[4] Jennifer Langosch, “Fowler joins Cardinals on 5-year deal,”,

[5] Jennifer Langosch, “Fowler joins Cardinals on 5-year deal,”,

[6] David Wilhelm, “Cardinals create free-agency splash, sign ex-Cub Fowler,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 10, 2016.

[7] David Wilhelm, “Cardinals create free-agency splash, sign ex-Cub Fowler,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 10, 2016.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals go ‘over the top’ to catch Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 10, 2016.

[9] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals go ‘over the top’ to catch Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 10, 2016.

[10] Jennifer Langosch, “Fowler joins Cardinals on 5-year deal,”,

[11] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals believe Fowler brings ‘infectious’ personality to club,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 12, 2016.

[12] Derrick Goold, “‘I don’t want to disappoint,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 2018.

[13] Ben Frederickson, “Fowler trade clears outfield mixed messages, for now,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 6, 2021.