The smile was still there, but the 2017 season didn’t turn out quite the way Dexter Fowler had hoped when he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals this past off-season.

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“Obviously we didn’t go to the playoffs, we didn’t reach our goals but at the end of the day you’ve got to go out and it’s something to build on next year,” said Fowler before the team closed out play this past Sunday.

Hampered by the likes of heel spurs, knee issues, a forearm strain, and nearly tearing his lat muscle, Fowler missed 24 games while on the disabled list and played in just 118 games overall.

“I’ve got to play more,” he stated of his season. “Yeah, it’s unfortunate I got injured. But those injuries, they made me mentally tougher. Obviously, it’s been a tough year for me but it’s something to build on next year. Go home and get some rest, and come back and hopefully get to play 150, 162–somewhere around there.”

Even with the limited games, Fowler hit a career-best 18 home runs this season and he’s confident that number will continue to rise if healthy in 2018.

“I feel like I missed out on 100, maybe almost 200 at-bats–200 plate appearances,” said Fowler. “I feel like I could’ve done some work with that extra plate appearances.”

Still considering himself a lead-off hitter, Fowler reiterated that he would be happy to again bat anywhere in the lineup. As far as defensively, Dexter is still planning on playing centerfield–although unlike earlier this season, he did leave the door open for change.

“Yeah, I’ve been hurt,” he answered. “I’ve been playing hurt most of the year and at the end of the day, that’s where I signed up to play. But like you said, everything’s on the table.”

“I don’t recall guaranteeing anything other than a lot of money, but I could go back and look at my notes,” quipped John Mozeliak at his end of season press conference when asked if he guaranteed Fowler would play the position when he signed.

“Having said that, think back to a year ago, we wanted to go out and find someone to help us in centerfield. I think the nuance of do we have flexibility in that position–the answer will come in the near future, but I don’t think today’s the day to drill down on what our outfield’s going to look like next year because there’s a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns for the Cardinals have most of the team wondering if their future will continue in St. Louis. Fowler has a no trade clause, but has some question as well.

“I see myself being here for a long time, that’s what I signed up for,” said Dexter. “That’s what my contract says, but at the end of the day, it’s up to Mo. It’s Mo’s decision and I’m looking to build a legacy with my teammates.”

Fowler, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, prospects like Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra–the Cardinals admittedly have a log jam of outfield depth.

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“I think that’s something over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss,” said Mozeliak. “There’s no doubt when you look at our outfield possibilities, we certainly have some flexibility. Again, once the dust settles, we’ll take a few days to breathe and then we’ll work through how we think we can optimize this current roster for next year and then know how to best augment it as we move forward.”

To his credit, Fowler is willing to help in any free agent recruiting efforts.

“100%,” he said. “100%. I know a bunch of guys around the league and I be honored to play with a lot of guys in the league and I’m sure they’d want to play with me. But at the end of the day, this is a great organization and hopefully, guys want to come over and play here.”

Signing a five-year, $82 million contract this past off-season, Fowler was looked to not just shore up centerfield but become a cornerstone player for the franchise.

“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you,” said Fowler. “You learn it’s about adapting. It’s a different city than Chicago, but at the end of the day I’ve got a house here, and my family loves the house out there, and the organization has been great.”

So was there pressure to live up to expectations of being a franchise player?

“I don’t ever try to put that hat on,” said Fowler. “It’s about going out and being myself and just playing.”

But the first year here was not always smooth. Besides not wanting to move from centerfield, which was noticed in the clubhouse, Fowler caught some heat nationally back in Spring Training when he opened up after being asked about issues his wife, who is of Iranian descent, faced in traveling and visiting family back in Iran.

Criticism later gained volume as he tried to play through some injuries, which affected his play in center. And Fowler recently deleted most of the content from his Twitter page after there was blowback to a post about global warming.

In between, Fowler was key in the popular addition of music during Spring Training workouts, moved out of the lead-off spot, donated $100,000 to the Redbird Rookies campaign, had a baseball field in Decatur, IL named in his honor, welcomed a bionic 7-year old to throw out the first pitch, and donated to hurricane relief. He also provided several clutch hits with 25 of his 65 RBIs coming with 2-outs and half of his 18 homeruns were go-ahead blasts. Overall, Fowler led the Cardinals with 12 game-winning RBIs.

“It’s sort of interesting,” said Mozeliak. “I think Dex fits the narrative that I opened with that the season just didn’t go as planned. What I mean by that is we envisioned him being our lead-off hitter, we didn’t expect him to end up being the middle of the order tape hitter, and then to perform at roughly an .850 OPS he fit that role. Even though it may not have been by design, it worked. I do think from a personality standpoint and the contributions he made in the clubhouse were helpful.”

So was there an adaption needed from the other side as well?

“I don’t know,” answered Fowler. “That’s a difficult question, it’s open-ended. I think what you’re trying to say is the expectation for me to hit lead-off and stuff like that, but at the end of the day I’m going to try and contribute wherever they put me.”

photo credit: Jeff Curry, Aaron Doster, Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports; Bill Greenblatt/UPI

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