Fowler welcomes leadership role with Rockies
Center fielder, 26, expected to begin fifth season as regular starter in '13
DENVER -- Center fielder Dexter Fowler has gone from asking questions around the Rockies' clubhouse to answering them.Fowler turns 27 in March, and 2013 projects to be his fifth season as a regular starter. But Fowler's status can be attributed to more than longevity. He enters next season with the clout that comes with the type of season the Rockies have long expected from him. After a slow start through Spring Training and the first month of the season that raised doubts whether he could be a consistently productive player, Fowler rebounded and finished with a .300 batting average and a .389 on-base percentage, plus career highs for home runs (13) and RBIs (53). His .849 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 296 plate appearances from the No. 1 spot in the batting order was tops among National League leadoff men. Fowler will be an important part of the mix of experience and youth that will greet new manager Walt Weiss. Unless the Rockies make changes through trades or free agency, they could have three projected regulars who were rookies in 2012 and another, infielder Chris Nelson, who was a regular last season for the first time in his career. If veteran first baseman Todd Helton has not healed from hip surgery, come Opening Day Fowler would join shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and right fielder Michael Cuddyer as experienced team leaders. Cuddyer would be the only starter in his 30s. Fowler admits enjoying his relative graybeard status. "You see some guys that are coming to me, asking me questions: 'How should I do this?'" Fowler said. "That's a good sign when you're in that position. To be able to direct them the right way is definitely a blessing." Fowler is excited about the players who are learning from him. With better health for the veteran regulars and improvement from a mostly inexperienced starting pitching staff, the talented young players are being asked to play a big role in what the Rockies hope is a turnaround. "We definitely have a lot of potential to win," he said. "We have the parts in place. We just need to live up to the expectations, play up to our expectations early." The Rockies spent the early part of the offseason choosing Weiss and completing their coaching staff but now can turn their attention to contract situations, including Fowler's. Last year, Fowler signed for $2.35 million and is headed into arbitration. In the past, the Rockies have often signed arbitration-eligible players to multiyear deals to avoid the possibility of losing them as free agents. Fowler also would be attractive to another team in a trade, and the Rockies would have to listen if dealing him meant improving the pitching. For his part, Fowler said he is happy to possibly be looked at as a cornerstone that the team would like to keep on an extended contract. "It would be a blessing," he said. "That's what you want. You want a core and to be able to play with guys." The next step for Fowler would be to lead the Rockies to a good start. That would involve improving his own career pattern. He is a .260 hitter before the All-Star break as opposed to .282 afterward. It was not for lack of work. Fowler participated in a mini-camp of hitting and physical activity put on by veteran first baseman Jason Giambi, which also included Tulowitzki, infielder Josh Rutledge and third-base prospect Nolan Arenado. He also spent some time training with Dodgers outfield standout Matt Kemp. The work paid off, but only after the rough beginning. Fowler was married earlier this month and the couple is planning a trip overseas to spend New Year's. Then the serious business of training will begin. There is one positive sign if Fowler does struggle early. After a slump, a rib-cage injury and a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2011, Fowler hit .288 with a .381 on-base percentage after the break and ended the year feeling he had established himself as a Major League hitter who could overcome his struggles. That mindset helped him in 2012. "I'm going to go with the same mindset I've always had," he said. "I've always known I can hit. I've always known I could play. If anything, I'll be actually more comfortable coming into next year. It'll be my fifth season here. That definitely helps."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.