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Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler signings: one more way Cubs are beating Cardinals

Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler first became friends as Atlanta-area high-school players. Their bond tightened throughout a 2016 season of glory with the Cubs.

And now, we are reminded of the Heyward-Fowler link once more.

Fowler, the Cardinals’ right fielder, is being called a free-agent bust.

Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, knows a thing or two about what that’s like.

Dexter Fowler, with former teammates Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward, is presented his 2016 World Series ring before a Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field. | AP

Cubs manager Joe Maddon famously told Fowler, “You go, we go.” It was right on the money in 2016, when Fowler was an All-Star and had a career-high on-base percentage of .393, sparking the team’s offensive engine from the leadoff spot.

And it applies in St. Louis in 2018, as Fowler is hitting a miniscule .171, his OBP a nowhere-near-good-enough .276, and his role in Year 2 with the run-of-the-mill Cardinals is shrinking.

On the day Fowler was introduced at Busch Stadium, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said this: “We think of him as a leader. And, more importantly, he wants to lead. He wants to have a voice in that clubhouse.”

Let’s assume it wasn’t a veiled shot at Heyward, but in hindsight it reads like one. After an outstanding lone season in St. Louis in 2015, Heyward spurned what reportedly was a richer offer from the Cardinals to sign for $184 million over eight years with the Cubs. In St. Louis, there are many who believe Heyward didn’t want any part of the vocal leadership role that would’ve been expected of him there.

The Cardinals clearly believed Fowler, on the other hand, was cut out for such a role when they signed him for five years and $82.5 million coming off the Cubs’ World Series victory.

Yet he didn’t get it done as a leadoff man in St. Louis. Nor did he get it done as a center fielder. His days at those positions — in the batting order and in the field — apparently are completely over. His days as a full-time starter are, too. Fowler had zero or one at-bats in 11 of the team’s last 19 games before going on paternity leave last weekend.

As for leadership? Consider Mozeliak’s comments this week in an interview with Fox Sports Midwest’s Dan McLaughlin:

“Here’s a guy who wants to go out and play well. I think he would tell you it’s hard to do that when you’re not playing on a consistent basis. But I’ve also had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level. You know, those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone who’s out there hustling and playing hard.”

Who looks better: the Cubs for signing Heyward or the Cardinals for signing Fowler?

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The answer is obvious. Heyward is slashing .288/.345/.436, which is comparable to how he performed in 2015. And his outfield play puts Fowler’s to shame. Did you see Heyward’s sprawling catch Tuesday that took him into the treacherous wall down the right-field line at Wrigley Field?

“It found my glove and I didn’t get hurt, knock on wood,” he said.

The energy and effort have always been there with Heyward, even when his offense was amateur-hour bad.

A Vice Sports story late in the 2016 season said Heyward’s numbers “would depress a one-handed shortstop with a bad case of anemia.”

A Deadspin writer later posed the question: “Has Jason Heyward ever not grounded out to second?”

In April of this season, ESPN ranked Heyward’s contract the fifth-worst in baseball.

He has been ripped and mocked along the way in St. Louis, where one columnist referred to him as the “bearded Benedict Arnold.” No doubt, many a Cardinals fan enjoyed Heyward’s descent into the offensive abyss.

Despite the fact Heyward’s defense in 2016 masked some of Fowler’s imperfections, there’s no question the latter player was the more valuable Cub that season. The proof was in the postseason lineup cards, when Heyward ceased being an everyday player. Heyward was out of the lineup even more often during the 2017 playoffs.

But now Fowler is a platoon player and Heyward is on the short list of Cubs MVPs. The Cardinals are 23-29 since Fowler homered to complete a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Busch Stadium in early May, with Heyward crashing into the right-field wall and injuring himself on the play. The Cubs are 33-20 in that same span, with Heyward doing new things on a seemingly daily basis to reclaim his reputation.

“We just believe the game is not over until it’s over, up or down,” Heyward said. “We’ve been on both sides.”

He was talking about his comeback-crazy team, which has trailed in every game during its six-game winning streak. Yet he could’ve been speaking about himself and his buddy Fowler. In a sense, they’ve traded places.

The Cubs’ signing of Heyward? Boom.

The Cardinals’ signing of Fowler? Bust.

For now, anyway.