Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

dexter fowler smileWith the free agent market so quiet over the last two weeks, and with so many notable free agents still out there, I’m wondering what’s going to happen with Dexter Fowler.

I’m not concerned that he won’t eventually find a good home that pays him well – and it’s important that he does, because the Cubs get a draft pick when he signs*. It’s just a question of where it’s going to be.

Early in the offseason, the teams that were most likely looking for center fielders included the Cubs, the Mariners, the Mets, the Nationals, and the Tigers. The Mariners made a bunch of moves in their outfield and appear set there. The Nationals haven’t been connected to Fowler in any rumors, though they did aggressively go after Jason Heyward. The Tigers picked up Cameron Maybin in trade, and that might be that for them. The Mets have been connected to Fowler at times, but they just signed Alejandro De Aza, and that might be it for them in the outfield, too.

One team out there that makes the most sense to me is the Giants, and Ken Rosenthal reports that he is a consideration there. I think the Orioles also make a great deal of sense, and probably the White Sox, too. The Indians would make sense if they were willing to spend a little bit. There’s an argument that the Rangers could use him in a rotation. Maybe even the Cardinals. That is all to say, there are some teams that make sense, but it could still be a long process for him to find the right spot.

It looks increasingly possible, then, that Fowler – who still looks like a great value on a reasonable three or four-year deal to me – may wind up a bargain signing late in the offseason.

Is there any chance at all that the Cubs, even after signing Heyward, would pounce on a steal of a deal?

Bruce Levine looks at that issue, implying that it’s still possible if the right series of related moves happen. You know the drill on the one you hear most: Jorge Soler gets moved for pitching, and then Heyward plays in right, opening center back up. Setting aside whether the Cubs could even make it work on a bargain deal financially, I think it’s fair to ask just how much the series of moves would actually improve the Cubs. It depends on the pitcher, of course, but, given Soler’s enormous upside, and given Fowler’s arguably mediocre defense in center field, is Fowler-Heyward clearly better than Heyward-Soler? I think there’s a debate there, and it gets really tricky because we don’t know for sure (1) how good Heyward can be in center field, (2) how good Fowler actually is or isn’t in center, and (3) whether Soler can get much better in right.

Then you throw in how tough it would be for the fit to work financially, plus the Cubs’ already-solid rotation for 2016, and this is all very hard to see. Levine mentions the possibility that Fowler would have to settle for a two-year deal in the $26 to $30 million range, and, if that actually happened, it would be so tempting to want the Cubs to sign Fowler simply because that’s a killer deal for a very valuable asset (sort out the details later). But I still think Fowler’s going to get a lot more than that. He should get a lot more than that.

So, in the end, I see the issue as more about whether the Cubs are independently interested in pursuing a Jorge-Soler-for-pitching deal – something Theo Epstein recently suggested was not likely – and then, if that happens for reasons that go beyond solely thinking about 2016, and the Cubs are suddenly looking for a center fielder anyway, maybe we circle back to Fowler being a discussion point around here. I just don’t think targeting a Fowler return is going to be what drives anything else the Cubs do. I sincerely believe the Cubs are happy with Heyward in center for the next year or two, and meanwhile seeing what they have in Soler in right.

Fowler was a perfect addition for the 2015 Cubs. He was a huge part of the team’s success, and, had they not landed Heyward, he would have made a ton of sense to return in 2016 and 2017. As it stands, though, he’ll probably find his best deal elsewhere.

*(A compensatory draft pick after the first round that will immediately disappear because the Cubs lose two picks for signing qualified free agents Jason Heyward and John Lackey. But Fowler signing still nets the Cubs a pick – presently, they’re set to lose their first and second rounders. When Fowler signs, the Cubs lose the compensatory pick instead, so it’s like they’re “getting” that second round pick back.)

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