By Bruce Levine --
CHICAGO (CBS) -- The late winter signing of center fielder Dexter Fowler was advertised as a last-minute fluke that luckily fell into the lap of the Chicago Cubs. Deep in negotiations with the Orioles on a three-year contract, Fowler did a 180 and came back to Chicago.
The agreement was on a one-year deal with an option for 2017. It included $13 million guaranteed. In reality, the 30-year-old Fowler will be a free agent again after 2016.
Fowler has been the catalyst for the Chicago offense. The team has put up big numbers in 10 of their 15 wins, and Fowler has been at the forefront of most of those big innings. He's hitting .368 (fifth in NL) with a .488 on-base percentage (third in NL) and has scored 17 games in 19 games.
The idea that Fowler returning to the Cubs was a last-minute piece of good fortune is true in one sense and totally missing the reality of the situation at the other end.
"It was a weird offseason for me," Fowler said. "I am really glad to be back and that it came around to me returning. I love playing here. At the end of the day, we had some unfinished business from last year. I am just coming back trying to finish it."
Fowler wasn't courted by other teams the way he expected to be. After recording career-highs in home runs, runs scored and games played in 2015, he was shocked there weren't many suitors for a long-term contract. All the while, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein kept tabs on Fowler by staying in touch with his agent, Casey Close.
"We had been talking to Theo the whole time," Fowler said. "Like I said, it was a very strange offseason for me. I thought something else was going to come about, but it obviously didn't. Things happen for a reason. I always have to trust in God and trust his plan. These guys are like family around here for me."
Watching Fowler improve his game in all facets since the start of the second half in 2015 has been a surprise to many. A lot of baseball people didn't see this turnaround coming. Fowler struggled and hit just .233 in the first half in 2015. Manager Joe Maddon was looking for answers.
"We talked a lot about how to set up the batting order at the midpoint of last season," Maddon said. "That was when (Kyle) Schwarber got here. Our data dudes really thought that Dex would show up big in the second half. That assumption was based on previous performance. He did, and to their credit I was considering batting Schwarber first and Dexter second. They said he will reappear like he had done in Colorado and Houston in the last three months. He did."
Fowler's walked 15 times this season, a big reason for his .488 on-base percentage that's crucial for a lineup that's loaded with power hitters. Fowler does strike out a lot too. He has averaged one whiff a game in his Cub career, fanning 154 times last season and 18 times in 19 games so far in 2016.
The Cubs brass deserves credit for hanging in there on Fowler, knowing he fit perfectly in the Chicago short-term plan. This lineup leads the league in runs scored, and Fowler is front and center in creating that offensive flow.
"To have a good leadoff hitter like Dexter is huge," newcomer and No. 2 hitter Jason Heyward said. "That guy takes so much pressure off of everybody else. That is not an easy job to do. I believe he mostly maximizes every at-bat. He doesn't try to do too much with pitches, and he doesn't try to hit early in the count. He is just looking for good pitches. He helps the whole lineup get a good read on the pitchers we face."
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.
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