For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.
A month after getting a great deal on Miguel Montero, the Cubs continued their ascendancy by acquiring Dexter Fowler from the Astros. To complete the trade, they sent Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to Houston. Somewhat surprisingly, no prospects were included, even though the Astros were rebuilding.
In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.
As mentioned last week on the Montero trade, the Cubs were ramping up to finally become competitive again after a long, painful rebuild. They had already signed Jon Lester to a big deal, brought back Jason Hammel, and we all expected Kris Bryant to make his debut later that year. Things were starting to look quite promising, but they still had one problem: they needed a center fielder.
The Cubs expected Arismendy Alcántara to be their center fielder of the future, but his major league debut did not go well at all. In 2014, he hit only .205/.254/.367 in 300 PA while striking out 31 percent of the time. It would be foolish to give up on him, but you can understand wanting more of a proven player when the option presents itself.
The funny thing is that Dexter Fowler was a center fielder in name only. He was one of the worst defensive center fielders in the game. Moreover, he was just coming off a season where he had a -20 DRS and -15.1 FRAA. On the flip side of that, he had hit .276/.375/.399 with better than average strikeout rates. One might expect that a good baserunning center fielder with a 126 wRC+ to be worth at least 4 WAR, but he gave so much back on defense that he was worth 1.8 bWAR and 2.1 fWAR.
Fowler’s greatest strength was his plate discipline. When you have a career 12.5 BB%, that takes significant pressure off the bat, which had been inconsistent in recent years. That is a lot better than one could say about Alcántara, even though he was much better defensively than Fowler.
One could have certainly made the case that Alcántara could have been better than Fowler in 2015, and therefore trading for just one year of him was a bit much. There is definitely merit to that argument, but the Cubs traded from depth to get him, as they no longer needed Valbuena or Straily, and they did not need to dip into their excellent farm system, either. Valbuena clearly was not going to be the starting third baseman with Bryant ready to make his debut, and they still had Starlin Castro at second base with Javier Báez standing by. Straily was coming off a disastrous 2014 season, and as mentioned before, the Cubs had already acquired Lester and Hammel.
The Astros had made a lot of progress on their rebuild. They won 70 games in 2014, up from 51 the previous year. They had fired Bo Porter and hired A.J. Hinch to be the new manager. Coincidentally, they were like the Cubs in the sense that they might have been ramping up to be competitive sooner than expected, or perhaps sooner than it was wise to do so, which is likely why they opted for major league players in the trade as opposed to prospects. Also, they were the Astros, so they likely saw ways to make Valbuena and Straily much better.
Even if the Astros could not succeed in making their new players better, it was a decent return for one year of Fowler. Valbuena alone was a solid, average player. As for the Cubs, it was highly questionable at best to be handing the starting center fielder job to Fowler, but only needing to trade from depth to get him mitigated the risks. All in all, it was a sensible trade all around.
Fowler had a nice 2015 season with the Cubs. He took a small step back offensively, but he still hit .250/.346/.411. His defense was still quite poor, but he was still worth 2.4 WAR that year. Alcántara, on the other hand, played in only 11 games at the major league level and did not hit at all. The Cubs traded him the following season.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Cubs got Fowler to come back on a one-year, $8 million deal with a mutual option (I always laugh when I see that) for 2016. He went on to have a career year, hitting .276/.393/.447, and shockingly had a 0 DRS, so he accumulated 4.0 WAR that year. That defensive number was likely a small sample size aberration, but it counts. He had a great moment in the World Series, too, by hitting a lead-off home run in Game 7, leading to the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years.
Fowler leveraged that career year to get a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals. I keep saying that it is okay to overpay for real production, but they are just not getting much from him. He had a good 2017 season, continuing to hit like he did in 2016 but with the expected regression in 2016. Unfortunately, he had a disastrous 2018 season, moving to right field and hitting just .180/.278/.298 in 90 games. His -1.3 WAR was among the worst in baseball.
Obviously seeing a free agent put up horrid numbers in the second of a five-year deal is alarming, but thankfully he had a nice bounceback season last year, hitting .238/.346/.409 for a 100 DRC+. There are still two years left on the deal. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that there is no salary cap in baseball, and Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr. is worth $4 billion. If Fowler’s contract hampers the team from spending more or moving on from him before the end of it if a better option presents itself, that’s on DeWitt.
Valbuena had a nice two-year run with the Astros, hitting .238/.329/.446 in that span and accumulating 4.9 WAR. He had a statistical oddity in 2015 by having a 108 wRC+ with just a .235 BABIP. He went on to sign a two-year deal with the Angels that just did not work out, and he was let go in August of 2018. I’m very sorry to say that he died in a tragic car accident at the end of 2018 in his home country of Venezuela. The accident resulted from the driver trying to avoid robbers.
Straily lasted only one year in Houston, and has since bounced around a bit. He had a great year with the Reds in 2016, with a 3.76 RA9 and 4.1 WAR, but he also had a high strand rate and a .236 BABIP. It stands as an outlier from the rest of his career. Last season, he played barely more than two months for the Orioles and had a catastrophic 10.01 RA9. He ended up signing a one-year contract in the KBO League for 2020.
This one is a little tricky, because we can only count the production that resulted directly from the trade, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Fowler would not have re-signed with the Cubs had he not been with the team in 2015. Even as presented above, it is a win, because even though Valbuena did well in Houston, there is no telling what would have happened had he stayed in Chicago, struggling for playing time.
This worked out very nicely for the Astros, too. Valbuena was a productive player for a competitive Astros team. It is too bad that Straily did not pan out, but the trade was successful for both teams.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.