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Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler celebrates with Kris Bryant after hitting a home run during the first inning of Game 7 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. • They had no choice. The Cardinals could no longer run in place while the rival Chicago Cubs sprinted further away from them this winter.

With a decent farm system nowhere close to deep enough to sacrifice prospects on the trade market, the Cardinals needed to sign the best free agent center fielder available.

It took much longer than general manager John Mozeliak and Cardinals fans hoped, but a major step was taken when former Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler arrived in St. Louis Thursday night for a physical.

The deal is likely to be announced on Friday after Fowler passes his physical.

In Fowler, the Cardinals landed the center fielder they desperately needed to help them improve their outfield defense. With this signing, the suspect outfield is now above average.

Barring injury or an unexpected trade, Randal Grichuk will now move to left field from center field. Suddenly Grichuk goes from being an average defensive center fielder to an exceptional left fielder with the type of range not often seen at that position.

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. could help improve his team’s offense with another major signing. If he’s really serious about threatening the Cubs for the NL Central title in 2017, he’ll open the wallet even more to sign Edwin Encarnacion.

Nonetheless, Cardinals fans should feel much better about their team with the addition of a veteran leadoff hitter who also will bring a bit of life to the clubhouse.

Fowler is more than just a quality leadoff hitter. He is a quality leader, a hip, loud personality that can energize a clubhouse and motivate the young players.

I got to know Fowler a bit when I covered him during his only season with the Astros in 2014. He always had a smile on his face. Even when he was injured, he kept his playful personality.

The 162-game season can be a dreadful drag, prompting even the most accessible players to be a tad surly from time to time.

Fowler, however, is one of those rare personalities who remained upbeat and full of life throughout the year. He also is willing to invest in his teammates.

When the Astros’ young star George Springer was promoted to the majors in 2014, he practically spent all his free time away from the stadium at Fowler’s place.

“On the field, Dexter’s great,” said Bo Porter, who managed Fowler with the Astros in 2014. “I think the cherry on top with Dexter is the intangibles. He’s a professional.

“You know exactly what you’re getting with him. He’s a leader, not only by example but also if there’s something that needs to be said. He’s very educated, very mindful. I’ve watched him grow into the leader he is today. His leadership with Springer was great. I have nothing but great things to say about him.”

I have no doubt that Fowler will spark the Cardinals on and off the field.

He’s coming off his first All-Star season and, of course, the first Cubs World Series title since 1908. He’ll likely lead off, giving Mike Matheny the opportunity to slide All-Star Matt Carpenter down in the lineup.

With Fowler, Carpenter, Grichuk and right fielder Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals are a more athletic team than they were last season.

He also helps the team improve its base running.

“I think Dexter is a really good sign for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Porter said. “He’s a guy that you can basically slot at the top of your lineup and he’s going to put up quality at-bats.

“He’s a run producer. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark and drive the ball into the gap.”

For some odd reason, some folks in St. Louis wondered recently if Fowler would be hesitant to sign with the Cardinals this winter. That seemed ridiculous.

A day before Game 1 of the World Series, Fowler made it clear that he would consider the Cardinals this winter. His face lit up with his trademark smile when I asked him if he would be willing to join the Cubs’ rivals.

“I’d consider anything,” Fowler told me that day. “I always like to keep my options open.”

Barring an unforeseen issue with his physical, Fowler is set to cash in, in a manner that was denied to him last offseason when the Orioles pulled a three-year offer.

Fowler returned to the Cubs in February for a bargain $8 million, one-year deal. He had reason to be bitter, but he showed up to spring training with his usual smile.

“Obviously I didn’t get those long-term deals that I wanted, but at the same time you get to come back to the team and you’re playing in the World Series,” he told me in October. “You’re National League champs. To add to all that it’s a blessing. Sometimes you have to sit there and take a deep breath and realize that there’s another plan in sight. ...

“You never know what the future holds. I didn’t think I’d have to do it last season. But it happens. You roll with the punches and keep going.”

The same could be said for the Cardinals this winter. Mozeliak didn’t expect that it would take so long to get a deal done.

He left the Gaylord National Resort on Thursday morning with fans back home doubting him and his team.

“No, we didn’t leave here with necessarily getting what we hoped done,” Mozeliak said. “But as I told you last night, the finish line isn’t today. We still have all month to continue to work on this. Hopefully we keep making progress. I’m encouraged.”

Now that Fowler appears set to sign, Cardinals fans also have reason to be encouraged.

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Jose de Jesus Ortiz

@OrtizKicks on Twitter

jortiz@post-dispatch.com