Fowler's contributions will be key in 2017

Outfielder should improve fundamentals, defense for Cardinals

Fowler's contributions will be key in 2017

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Cardinals squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?

ST. LOUIS -- Following a season in which flawed fundamentals, deficient defense and an often one-dimensional offense hampered the Cardinals, the organization approached the Hot Stove season narrowly focused in a quest to adjust its roster accordingly.

It was an exercise in pursuing quality, not quantity, which explains the club's limited free-agent activity over the past three months. The most notable addition came in December, when Dexter Fowler signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract.

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The Cardinals are hopeful that with that investment comes immediate impact from a player who has the potential to drastically alter the personality of a club that fell two wins short of reaching the postseason in 2016.

"I think he's going to be a great fit, all the way around, in this community, on this team, in the lineup, in our clubhouse," manager Mike Matheny said. "[I'm] very, very excited about having him with us."

The effervescent Fowler should inject some levity into a Cardinals clubhouse that seemed stale at times last season. He'll give the Cardinals a new defensive look in the outfield and will prompt a batting order move for Matt Carpenter, who has been the team's primary leadoff hitter for four seasons.

How has each MLB club changed for 2017?

"You go, we go," was what Cubs manager Joe Maddon would often tell Fowler, who hit leadoff for the World Series champions in 2016. Maddon had evidentiary support for the assertion, too. The Cubs went 64-20 when Fowler tallied at least one hit last season, and Fowler's .367 career on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter ranks fourth-best in the Majors (minimum 820 plate appearances) since he debuted in 2008.

He'll take that ability to get on base into the leadoff spot for the Cardinals, who, in turn, will have the flexibility to utilize Carpenter in more of a run-production spot.

For a team that stole an NL-low 35 bases and ranked last in the league in FanGraphs' baserunning metric (19.8 runs below average), Fowler's presence on the bases will be a welcome one.

According to FanGraphs, Fowler provided 6.2 runs above average on the bases last season. That metric factors in stolen bases, caught stealing, extra bases taken, outs on the bases and the ability to avoid double plays. In comparison, Randal Grichuk topped the Cardinals last season with a figure of 2.4.

And then there's the defense, a part of Fowler's game that has been thoroughly dissected after his decision to play deeper paid dividends last season. He profiles as an average defensive center fielder, but his addition to this team allows the Cardinals to drastically improve their left-field defense. That's now where Grichuk will play.

In a free-agent market scant on outfield talent, the Cardinals were able to land a dynamic player whose skill set should help the club improve multiple areas of deficit. For a club seeking increased athleticism and a return to sound fundamentals, Fowler's contributions will be key.

Pitchers and catchers have their first spring workout Feb. 15 and the first full-squad workout at Roger Dean Stadium is Feb. 17.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.