Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

dexter fowler outfieldAnnually, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs takes a look at the expected future performance of various free agents, comparing them against their expected future contracts, and listing a handful that look to be bad bets over the life of their next deal.

This year’s crew includes the high-risk, high-reward slugger Chris Davis at the top, which is understandable given how much he’s expected to get in free agency ($100+ million), and how difficult to predict his 2016 performance is (let alone the years after that).

Just sneaking onto the list, though, is a familiar face in Dexter Fowler. Although Cameron and the crowd project Fowler to net a deal in the – to me – reasonable four-year, $56 million range, Steamer projects Fowler to be worth just 1.7 WAR in 2016, and then, presumably, declining from there. When you factor in the draft pick it’ll cost to sign the 30-year-old center fielder, Cameron concludes Fowler is not worth his projected contracts.

Now, then. While I do think there are clear risks with Fowler going forward (he’s heading into his 30s, he’s had injury issues in the past, and his defense in center field is questionable), I’m not sure that the Steamer WAR projection does a fair job of assessing Fowler’s value, in large part because it hammers him on defense, projecting him to be eight runs below average. Two of the last three years, Fowler has been about average in center field, according to the metrics, and two of the four years before that, he was just a touch below average. Then, sprinkled in, you have three seasons where Fowler was well below average, especially the 2014 season with the Astros (where some have questioned whether his defensive positioning was the culprit (which seemed to be corrected this year)).

I think, through that lens, and with what we saw this past season, it’s fair to say that Fowler is a below average defensive center fielder. Not hugely below average, but a little below average.

Offensively, I could also take some issue with Steamer’s projection, which gives him worse power numbers than six of the last seven years, a walk rate at or lower than all but two of his last five years, a strikeout rate worse than two of his last three years, and a wOBA much lower than he’s ever posted. Yes, he’s aging, but he didn’t show any serious signs of offensive decline last year. Most importantly, Fowler still does the things that make him special at the plate: he almost never swings at pitches out of the zone, he makes pitchers work, he takes walks, and he gets on base.

That is all to say, I’m not so sure I’d agree with Steamer’s projected value for Fowler in 2016 and/or beyond. That being the case, I’m not so sure I’d call Fowler’s next deal a potential landmine, though this exercise did make me appreciate a little more that he’s not a clear $60+ million player.

It is highly likely that the Cubs will go in another direction in center field for 2016, but, depending on how other teams view the potential issues for Fowler going forward, his market will continue to be worth monitoring. You never know when he might have to settle for less than expected, and perhaps coming back to the Cubs at that point will make sense for both sides.

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