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When outfielder Dexter Fowler stepped off his flight at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Thursday night, set to become the Cardinals’ next center fielder, a Southwest Airlines employee greeted with him a bag of the company's signature peanuts.

He’ll go nuts for St. Louis, the official said he told Fowler.

It took a bit more than peanuts to land the new leadoff hitter.

Unable or unwilling to meet the skyrocketing prices to pull off a trade for an outfielder, the Cardinals went “over the top” for a deal with Fowler, multiple sources confirmed to the Post-Dispatch on Thursday. The five-year deal with the former Cubs center fielder was formally announced at a Busch Stadium press conference Friday morning.

The deal was originally described by sources as substantial and beyond the Cardinals’ initial play, and it stretched them to pay $82.5 million. The Cardinals took the ignition switch from their rivals’ lineup just as a year ago the Cubs signed former Cardinals Jason Heyward and John Lackey. Fowler’s contract also could signal a pivot for the Cardinals that makes them a player for other free agents.

General manager John Mozeliak and his staff left baseball's Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday St. Louis time, and they did so emptyhanded. An attempt to trade for Adam Eaton was unsuccessful when Washington packaged three of its brightest prospects, including its top pitching prospect, to land the outfielder from the Chicago White Sox. Asking prices soared. Colorado wanted a haul for center fielder Charlie Blackmon.

As he waited in the hotel lobby for a ride, Mozeliak was asked by the Post-Dispatch if the cost of trading for the desired outfielder was so high that he would just prefer to throw cash at the vacancy.

“It’s not what I would rather do,” Mozeliak said. “It’s what I feel we think makes the most sense from an investment standpoint. I’ve always told you, what’s the acquisition cost? The acquisition cost could be players. The acquisition cost could be money. And sometimes they’re not always equal. Sometimes you have more money. Sometimes you have more talent. We’re trying to wade through that.”

The Cardinals have had $40 million come off the payroll and they are about to benefit from a $1.1 billion TV rights deal. They do not hide from their ability to spend. They could become more aggressive than previously believed, turning toward free-agent sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as possible pursuits.

The Cardinals will lose the 19th overall pick in 2017 for signing Fowler.

In discussions with other teams this past week about possible trade targets — Eaton, Blackmon, and, at one time, Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain, and likely others — the Cardinals recognized that teams wanted top pitching prospect Alex Reyes. That’s the equivalent of what the White Sox got for Eaton and his five years of control.

The Cardinals did not have the next-tier prospect to talk a team like the White Sox off of Reyes. They did explore deals with larger groups of prospects.

Mozeliak referred to it as a “gap” on the depth chart, and they encountered a similar issue with the free-agent market on Wednesday afternoon. Once Ian Desmond had agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal with Colorado, the outfield market had a similar gap. There was Fowler at the top and then a dip to a group that did not include the surefire transformative player the Cardinals sought. Opposing teams at the winter meetings saw Fowler as the best and most-obvious fit for the Cardinals, and that left the Cardinals to meet or exceed his asking price to make it happen.

Fowler, 30, personified so many of the traits the Cardinals listed at the start of this offseason for the outfielder they wanted to acquire.

This past season, he hit .276 with an .840 OPS and 13 homers while also stealing 13 bases and scoring 84 runs for the Cubs. Fowler had a .393 on-base percentage, the highest of any leadoff hitter in the majors. Second to him was the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, at .386. After a power-mad season that saw the Cardinals hit 225 home runs but miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010, they wanted to increase their athleticism and their baserunning ability and reshape the top of the order around on-base percentage. Fowler does all of that. He also allows Carpenter to move to the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the order, where the All-Star can be an effective run-producer.

Manager Mike Matheny compared the two Tuesday at the winter meetings, suggesting how Fowler takes “a Matt Carpenter-style at-bat, going in and grinding and figuring out a way to get on base and figuring out what that does to an opposition and what it does to a pitching staff and how it elevates pitch counts and how it does create a sense of rhythm in your offense.”

Fowler had a quicker phrase for this.

“You go, we go,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told Fowler.

They made T-shirts.

In Game 7 of the World Series, Fowler started the game by going ... yard. His leadoff homer put the Cubs ahead early, and he would get two more hits as the Cubs won, 8-7, in 10 innings for the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1908. Fowler went seven for 30 (.233) with two homers in the World Series. He would be the first batter the Cubs face as defending World Series champs if he leads off for the Cardinals on April 2, baseball’s opening night.

As spring training started this year, word leaked that Fowler had an agreement with Baltimore. He instead surprised his former Cubs teammates by returning on a one-year deal. He followed with a career year, upping his career OBP to .366 and improving his career OPS to .788. He also was an All-Star.

Airport security also met Fowler at the gate Thursday night to escort him to a private area at Southwest’s Concourse. The gathered media were unable to see him leave. One fan caught a photo of him boarding in Las Vegas. Others recognized him.

Fowler signed an autograph for an airport official.

The next thing he signed was a Cardinals contract.

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.