Although it was not the deal he was looking for coming into the offseason, Dexter Fowler has a chance to benefit from his recently-signed, short-term contract with the Chicago Cubs.
That contract guarantees him $13 million with a chance to re-enter the free agent market place after 2016 to take advantage of a weaker free agent class. In theory, at that time, he could improve upon the larger guaranteed offers (though over multiple years) he turned down to return to the Cubs.
How can he do it? Well let’s look back at his year with the Cubs in 2015, and how things could look for him in 2016.
Fowler was on the open market until late February despite a quality résumé that features the third best on-base percentage (.363) out of the lead-off spot among batters with at least 1,500 plate appearances since 2011.
If 2015 was an audition to show what Fowler can do on a winning club after spending the most of his career on underachieving Rockies and Astros teams, then 2016 can serve as the encore performance. Especially if he can build off his second-half success and put his first-half struggles behind him.
Fortunately for Fowler, he found progression to the mean after the break thanks in part to a .340 BABIP and a walk rate that jumped to 15.3 percent, as his second half ended with a .272/.389/.462 slash, .372 wOBA, and 137 wRC+. He was a 2.5 fWAR player in the second half, which was second best on the team behind Kris Bryant (3.2), and tied for 24th in baseball with Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Although he wasn’t doing it alone, it is not a coincidence that the Cubs took off in the second half right alongside Fowler.
Fowler can also use 2016 to prove his defensive improvement in center field was not a one-year fluke. (Then again, his defense in center field probably was not as bad as previously advertised.)
By UZR/150, 2015 was Fowler’s best defensive season to date. Further, according to Inside Edge Fielding metrics, Fowler hauled in 99.1 percent of the balls listed as “routine” and 92.3 percent of ones qualified as “likely” in 2015. Of course, even if Fowler shows improvement (or even stays the same) it might be a difficult sell to some, considering how much ground Heyward covers in right field:
— Daren Willman (@darenw) February 25, 2016
Assuming Fowler does return to free agency after this season – no one expects the $9 million mutual option for 2017 to be exercised – he projects to benefit from what looks like a lighter market.
This group of six outfielders headline a class that is deemed to be weak at this stage. Other high-end free agents could include third baseman Adrian Beltre, catchers Matt Wieters, Francisco Cervelli, Jonathan Lucroy (team option) and first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion.
If Fowler can re-create the second half of his 2015 season, or even play more to his career norms, and keep up his defensive performance, a bigger payday could be on the horizon. And if he does hit those kinds of marks, the 2016 Cubs will be a big beneficiary, too.