CHICAGO -- It's as if he knew the debate was raging in social media circles when he led off Friday's game with a home run. How much do the Chicago Cubs miss Dexter Fowler? The 3-2 pitch from John Lackey that Fowler deposited in the right-field bleachers -- for his new team in St. Louis -- might have answered that question, but in reality, it's impossible to know what effect Fowler would have on an offense that so far is a shell of its 2016 self.
There's no doubt that the popular Fowler is missed, simply because he's a good player as well as a strong clubhouse presence, but that doesn't mean the Cubs should have anted up the five years and $82.5 million that the Cardinals committed for his services. Still, the win/loss numbers are eye-popping.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cubs were 179-102 with Fowler in the lineup the past two seasons. Without him, they were just 21-21. That's why manager Joe Maddon can simultaneously miss Fowler and David Ross -- the latter of whom is broadcasting Sunday’s night game between the Cubs and Cardinals for ESPN -- while understanding that annual roster turnover is part of the game.
"They were such a big part of what we've done the last couple of years," Maddon said. "It's hard to quantify what they did do, but you can have a pretty strong idea. The reality is they are not here. Other guys have to ascend. That's either leadership within the group or younger guys growing up. That's how this game works."
So far, the Cubs' young hitters haven't exactly grown up, and when you consider their lack of production from the lead-off spot, the loss of Fowler seems to sting. However, as bad as the Cubs' lead-off hitters have been, the Cardinals have been just as anemic at the top of their lineup. Going into Sunday's game, the Cubs had a .213 batting average and .316 on-base percentage from their lead-off men, while the Cardinals were at .218 and .311, respectively.
Would the Cubs be faring better offensively with Fowler? It's impossible to say, but one thing is for sure: The Cubs lost some leaders from their championship team, and Fowler was one of those. Despite the losses, Maddon defended his group recently. He believes they have enough in the clubhouse to turn things around.
"I think we have the leadership capability," Maddon said. "I think young guys are going to grow up. If we had to struggle, I prefer it now as opposed to the end of the year."
The win/loss record of the Cubs in 2015 and 2016 might bolster the Fowler supporters, who believe the Cubs made a mistake in letting him go, but it can be a misleading statistic. The team's slump, which coincided with when he was hurt last season, came during a 24-games-in-24-days stretch that no one player could have reversed. Fowler has heard the talk of his value and downplays it.
"People say that," he said. "It's all hindsight. You never know if I was in there it [the slump] would have happened. To think about that is kind of selfish."
More than any production Fowler might or might not have provided, it is what he represents that has been missed the most by the Cubs. He was the face of a runaway juggernaut, a team that won 200 games over two seasons, plus a World Series. Fowler embodied the Cubs' swagger from the second half of 2015 that carried over for the entirety of the following season. At the moment, they no longer have that.
While the Houston Astros mimic the Cubs of last season and the Washington Nationals' battle with unfinished business on their minds, the defending World Series champions are still searching for who they are.
The loss of Fowler was a blow, but it can't be the defining moment of the 2017 team. That narrative would be too easy. The problems run deeper. As the halfway point nears, the Cubs -- and the Cardinals, for that matter -- are searching for an identity. Who finds theirs first might determine if Fowler's old team or new one is playing come October.
"Every team goes through a rut," Fowler said with a shrug. "I'm sure they'll snap out of it some time."