Dexter Fowler signs with Cardinals, says new team can win it all

ST. LOUIS — Many who follow the Cubs will remain fans of Dexter Fowler forever, and why not? He gave the team the best season of his career in 2016, from his red-hot April to his first All-Star Game to his leadoff homer in Game 7 of the World Series.

Fowler will be missed on the North side, and the feeling will be mutual. But he has officially moved on — to the Cubs’ biggest rivals, no less. The Cardinals introduced their new center fielder and leadoff hitter Friday at Busch Stadium.

“I’m a Cardinal now,” Fowler said, “and I couldn’t be happier.”

One year after the Cubs lured outfielder Jason Heyward and starting pitcher John Lackey from St. Louis, the Cardinals got a measure of revenge. At least, that’s how some here are looking at it, even though the Cubs clearly had no plans to try to bring Fowler back into the fold. That was driven home with last week’s signing of former Cardinal Jon Jay, who is expected to share time in center field with Albert Almora Jr.

Dexter Fowler on Friday: "I'm a Cardinal now, and I couldn't be happier." (AP/Jeff Roberson)

The Cardinals gave Fowler the sort of long-term deal — a reported $82.5 million for five years — that the Cubs wouldn’t have begun to consider offering. But that’s not to suggest Fowler, who’ll wear No. 25 and turn 31 years old a week before the season starts (against the Cubs in St. Louis), doesn’t make last season’s N.L. Central runners-up significantly better.

In fact, he was the very piece they needed to help them bridge the gap between them and the Cubs, who finished 17½ games in front in 2016. The insertion of Fowler — who had a career-best .393 on-base percentage last season — at the top of the order enables three-time All-Star Matt Carpenter to slide back down into a run-producing role. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny also can move Randal Grichuk from center field to left field (vacated by new Yankee Matt Holliday), where he should be a defensive standout with his speed and range.

Look, it’s not like the Cardinals got Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo or one of the Cubs’ other young superstars. But they are feeling pretty good about themselves.

“I feel like this team has a chance to win a World Series,” Fowler said. “That was a big part in coming here, because winning is addictive.”

The Cardinals needed a leadoff hitter. They hoped to get more athletic on the field and better on the basepaths.

“But Mr. Fowler is more than that,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “We also think about him as a leader. More importantly, he wants to lead. He wants to have a voice in that clubhouse.”

Fowler will miss his former clubhouse, but he’ll get over it. That’s why he’s making the bigger-than-ever bucks.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Now (the Cubs) are the rival, but I’ve still got some boys over there. We’ll always be boys. We won a championship together. But when you get on the field, it’s go time. Now we’re playing against each other.”

Yet the memories sure are good. Fowler won’t ever forget the way Cubs teammates greeted him at 2016 spring training, after the team surprisingly brought him back on a one-year contract. He won’t forget the “you go, we go” faith Joe Maddon had in his leadoff guy.

He even appreciated the respectful manner in which things ended, with Cubs president Theo Epstein giving Fowler a heads-up before the team’s announcement that it had signed Jay.

“I’ll be forever grateful that I was a Cub,” Fowler said. “We made history. We won a World Series. But that door is closed. I’m a Cardinal now, and we’re trying to make history over here as well.”

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Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com