Dexter Fowler St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

photo by @cardinalsgifs

If you asked me before the baseball season began to name the one player the Cardinals couldn’t afford to lose, I would have told you Dexter Fowler. He was the neon billboard lighting up the notion of a new style of play in St. Louis.

Fowler was set to be the domino that set everything else into motion–a lot of expectations for the shoulders of one man. Based on the declarations that were made by the team, stacked alongside the actual significant roster moves made to accommodate those ideals, Fowler was larger than life before he stepped onto the field in St. Louis.

Stop for a moment and consider: what were your expectations about the Cardinals coming into the season? Narratives change so quickly, and after the middling start the team has gotten off to, it may be difficult to accurately recall your level of optimism on opening night. Back then, many felt the team, which won 86 games last year and narrowly missed the playoffs, would be improved. A combination of factors were behind an anticipated rebound, but it’s probable that the addition of Fowler, for many, was chief among them.

Climb into your memory bank to answer another question: what was your impression of the team before it signed Fowler? Did the Cardinals have the looks of a contending team? I’d imagine the response would have been decidedly negative.

That probably isn’t only because the organization convinced us that it needed an upgrade in center field during the 2016 end-of-season press conference. Still, the weight of that hole on the roster certainly seemed significant at the time. After all, center field was about more than just center field.

Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss, two noteworthy pieces to the Cardinals offense, were gone. Substantial subtractions from a group that didn’t do enough to reach the playoffs, without any substantial additions to balance things out, was a proposition that made for a restless fan base. After the Nationals boggled the trade market in acquiring Adam Eaton for a king’s ransom, the Cardinals were forced to go beyond their financial comfort zone to secure the free-agent Fowler, filling the aforementioned significant hole in the roster.

But the Cardinals didn’t lend any focus to outfield depth behind Fowler–an injury to him, and they’d be in questionable territory. For a time from Thursday night into Friday afternoon, it appeared the Cardinals and their fans may have to face that idea of an outfield sans Fowler after he left Thursday’s game with right shoulder injury.

Fortunately, that nightmare scenario remains the stuff of imagination:

Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief: Fowler is fine. And the Cardinals need him to be.

In reality, St. Louis needs better than fine out of Fowler. They need him to resemble last year’s version of himself as closely as possible. Even if he can’t satisfy the mammoth expectations attached to his acquisition, Fowler has to perform as one of the better hitters in the Cardinals lineup if the team is to succeed.

His current .223/.302/.408 batting line and OPS+ of 87 (100 is league-average) won’t be enough. Though Fowler’s numbers have normalized to an extent after a remarkably slow start, the Cardinals need him healthy and contributing on a more consistent basis than they’ve seen thus far.

Of course, Fowler can’t do it alone. When examining the causes for the Cardinals sluggish start in the standings, offensive inefficiency creeps to the top of the list. Starting pitching has put the Cardinals in position to compete in most of their games, but the St. Louis offense ranks 24th in runs scored despite ranking 12th in on-base percentage.

Ideally, Fowler would help boost that OBP ranking even higher, but it’s typically going to be up to others to drive in those runs. Certainly Friday’s offensive onslaught–without Fowler in the starting lineup, for what it’s worth–makes everyone feel better about the state of the offense, but ten-run games aren’t reflective of the type of consistent output the Cardinals should strive toward (though, I’m sure fans would take it).

Instead, the Cardinals need to simply take advantage of opportunities. When the runs are out there, bring ’em in.

More likely than not, a full season of Dexter Fowler will provide plenty of those chances. Just… keep him healthy.