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02/23/11 10:47 PM EST

Rockies counting on Fowler to set table

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Center fielder Dexter Fowler doesn't hide from his importance to the Rockies this season. If he did, he'd never be seen.

Teammates and even general manager Dan O'Dowd have at various times stopped him and mentioned how vital his role as leadoff man is in 2011. With two big RBI players in the middle of the lineup in Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies are asking Fowler -- who has had peaks and valleys in his two years in the Majors -- to reach a production level that causes opponents to depart some of their focus from the big hitters.

Simply put, Gonzalez led the National League in hitting and finished third in Most Valuable Player voting, and Tulowitzki finished fifth in the MVP race, yet the Rockies finished third in the NL West. A productive Fowler from the leadoff spot makes Gonzalez and Tulowitzki even better and could make the Rockies a championship contender.

The switch-hitting Fowler, who turns 25 on March 22, is one of the Majors' fastest players. But he saves his speed for on the field, not running from expectations.

"I always see myself as being a dominant player, trying to go out and just turn the game up a little bit," Fowler said. "Whether it's hitting a triple, hitting a double, stealing a base, running down fly balls, robbing home runs, doing all that stuff."

In 2009, Fowler unexpectedly made the Opening Day roster after not having played in Triple-A. Electric if inexperienced, Fowler hit .266 but managed a .363 on-base percentage and stole 27 bases. He had more success on the basepaths early, before opposing pitchers used their know-how to keep him stationary. Still, Fowler's contribution helped the Rockies to the playoffs.

Last year, Fowler began the year hitting .216 through the end of May. Because the club was searching for a spark offensively and often not using him in the lineup, the Rockies sent him to Triple-A Colorado Springs. A much better Fowler returned on June 29. He hit .280 after the All-Star break.

Overall, Fowler finished at .260 with a .347 on-base percentage, 20 doubles and a Majors-leading 14 triples in 132 games. From Aug. 1 through season's end, Fowler hit .288, meaning he played a huge role in the team's early September surge into playoff contention, and was a bright spot when the Rockies faltered at the end.

However, Fowler hit second more times (61 games, including 59 starts, and 268 plate appearances) than leadoff (45 games, 43 starts, 212 plate appearances).

Now the Rockies believe Fowler is ready to become a top leadoff man.

One project he is embracing is using the bunt as a weapon. It can be difficult because his speed can mean a triple on any ball hit into an outfield gap, but if he improves on the four bunt hits of last year he can change how defenses play him.

If the Rockies can count on his production consistently, it'll make things easier on the middle of the order.

"If he puts the ball more in play, gets some bunts down, he's going to be the best or one of the best leadoff hitters in the game," Gonzalez said. "One player change the whole team."

Fowler doesn't mind being asked to do just that.

"It changes all aspects of the game," he said. "Pitchers are throwing more fastballs. They're trying to speed up their delivery and all that.

"Hitting at the top of the lineup is vital. That's more runs and RBIs for the guys behind me. It's vital that I get on base any way I can, whether it's bunt, hit the ball in the gap, walk."

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.