What a difference a year makes — on December 3rd, 2013, the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler to the Astros for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes. This transaction elicited a huge yawn from me, but at least players with major league experience had been swapped. This past Monday, Fowler's brief tenure with the Astros ended, as he was dealt to the Cubs for pitcher Dan Straily and third baseman Luis Valbuena. Along with the other offseason acquisitions the Cubs have made such as Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and David Ross, as well as the expected development of Kris Bryant and the rest of the young talent, the Cubs might be speeding up their time table for being competitive.
On the surface, Dexter Fowler fills a gaping hole in center field the Cubs have had for quite some time. Since Fowler entered the majors in 2008, the Cubs have used a total of eighteen players in center, none of whom made the heart beat faster. In additions to drop-ins like Marlon Byrd and David DeJesus, such stunning talent as Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt and Ryan Kalish have been used. Fowler provides the ability to get on base from the leadoff position, something the Cubs have been desperate for and will definitely need if they're going to begin their march back to respectability and beyond.
But it's by no means guaranteed he'll be an automatic upgrade. The punch he'll provide at the top of the batting order is counterbalanced by his deficiencies in the field. This is a screen grab from a Tableau data viz I created looking at several aspects of Fowler in context with other center fielders between 2008-2014 and shows how Fowler rates using defensive runs saved and weighted runs created (minimum 1000 plate appearances):
Defensive runs saved are on the horizontal axis, weighted runs created on the vertical, with Fowler highlighted in red. The slider in the actual data viz can be used to filter the number of plate appearances, and I arbitrarily chose 1,000. Fowler has been above average offensively, but a liability defensively. This doesn't have to be a huge disaster, since players make far more contributions with the bat that in the field.
In his career, Fowler has had 3,140 plate appearances. Since he's not a home run hitter (48 in his career), it can be reasonably stated there is no expectation he should score on a home run with no one on base, but he certainly is expected to get on base and give the heart of the lineup the opportunity to drive him in. This he has done admirably, with a career on-base percentage of .366. Here's how that ranks among center fielders in that span:
In addition, with runners on base, he's at league average in the percent of those runners who score over his career and hits into double plays with less frequency than league average, but that's to be expected for a speedy leadoff hitter.
Contrast this with his defense, in which he's played almost 6,000 innings and had 1,585 chances to make a play and committed 27 errors. Not all errors are the same — one could be with two outs and the bases empty, after which the third out is made and no harm is done; conversely, it could be a two-out error with the bases loaded that allows three (or more, depending on subsequent events) unearned runs to score. Either way, unless his defense slips to such a level that he wouldn't be allowed on a minor league team, let alone the majors, his offensive contributions should far outweigh his defensive liabilities. The first graph makes it clear — in his career, he's cost his teams 44 runs with his defense but provided 433 on offense, almost a ten-to-one ratio.
Fowler has had a couple trips to the 15-day disabled list over the past two years, but there's no reason to think there's anything structurally wrong with him. He will enter free agency after this year, giving the Cubs the time to see if they want to sign him going forward or see how Arismendy Alcantara or Albert Almora develop. The Cubs will test the notion that teams need to be strong up the middle in order to be competitive with a projected lineup of Miguel Montero at catcher (+), Javier Baez at second (-), Starlin Castro at short (-) and Fowler. Given the state of the Cubs, there are no guarantees that this will be the final product, particularly with Addison Russell in the minors as the potential shortstop of the future.
There's one other issue: Fowler at center puts additional pressure on the corner outfielders to cover more ground. In his brief stint in 2014 Jorge Soler looked competent in right field, and left field is in flux. The current mlb.com depth chart shows Chris Coghlan in left and Mike Olt at third. This is predicated on what the Cubs do with star-in-the-making Kris Bryant, who has been viewed as underwhelming defensively at third and possibly used in left. Moving Luis Valbuena removed one obstacle, and Mike Olt was subpar in his brief trial last year, suggesting the Cubs may be ready to go forward with Bryant at third -- but probably not at the beginning of the year. Bryant can be brought up "around" April 17th and not lose a year of team control, so my bold prediction will be he'll join the Cubs on April 18th and play third.
It's an exciting time to be a Cubs fan, particularly with a daughter who lives blocks from Wrigley. There are still plenty of questions, and I'll be addressing a very big one in my next post, but after the bleakness of the past five years, there is reason to be optimistic. Dexter Fowler won't be the magic bullet that places the Cubs over the top, but he does provide a lineup with power bats someone to drive in. He'll never be confused with Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen, but if the Cubs have enough talent around him, he won't need to be.
All data from FanGraphs
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.