Yesterday, we took a look at a couple of offensively struggling Chicago Cubs (Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell), in hopes of discerning whether or not a quick bounce back was likely before the end of the NLCS (and maybe even their season).
In short, I did see some legitimate issues in terms of their approach at the plate, but also plenty of reasons to be encouraged.
But within that article, I mentioned that the Cubs had managed to win four out of their six postseason games so far despite the lack of offensive contributions from their numbers three and five hitter.
Of course, a lot of that missing production has come off the bat (and glove) of Javy Baez and Kris Bryant, but there’s another, more obvious contributor who probably hasn’t received enough love: Dexter Fowler.
Fowler has been far from a world beater in the playoffs (.167/.231/.333), but he has scored four runs, flashed some serious leather out in center field, and hit a nice insurance home run in Game 1 of the NLCS that you probably missed:
Are you wondering why you have absolutely no recollection of Fowler’s 362 foot, 99.4 MPH home run in Game 1 of the NLCS? That’s because it came roughly three seconds after Miguel Montero’s enormously impactful, game-changing grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning. At this point, I wasn’t even sure what was happening, because Montero’s homer was such an overwhelmingly exciting moment.
And sure, the Cubs wound up winning the game 8-4, but Hector Rondon did give up a run in the top of the ninth, and got out of a lucky jam when the Cubs snagged a Chase Utley liner and doubled off Andrew Toles at second base. It wasn’t a pretty inning for Rondon, but I’m glad the Cubs had enough of a cushion for Joe Maddon to see what he could do in a still arguably important spot.
But if you’re not much for the indirect benefits, how about some very direct, very awesome defensive plays in center field, back in Game 1 of the NLCS:
In each of the third and fourth inning, Fowler made diving plays in right and left-center field, preventing extra base-hits from each of Justin Turner and Carlos Ruiz. Given how tight that game was (until the Cubs broke it open in the eighth), those were seriously huge plays at the time.
So, given his obvious impact on the both the NLDS and NLCS (as well as the Cubs presence in the postseason at all), Bob Nightengale discusses Fowler’s grateful return to the Cubs, his importance to the team, and his future in MLB at USA Today.
Nightengale re-examines the now familiar story of Fowler’s surprise return to the Cubs at the beginning of Spring Training, and how he left a three-year, $35 million deal on the table with the Orioles. While Fowler continually insists that he is grateful and ecstatic to have rejoined the Cubs, Nightengale writes that the Cubs are even more so.
“We would not be in this position without him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game 2 of the NLCS, per Nightengale. “Go back to Spring Training, and even prior to that where we were trying to put this thing together, and I was on the phone a lot with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] regarding the composition …. Then, we got to camp, and Dexter was still out there.”
Obviously, the decision to bring back Fowler was made even more important when Kyle Schwarber was injured a few games into the season. In retrospect (well, depending on where this NLCS ends up), the decision to bring back Fowler may have been one of the luckiest (or smartest) reunions the Cubs have ever made. Maddon has reiterated time and again that their entire offense is centered around Fowler and his on-base skills, approach at the plate, and general offensive potential. Without him, it seems, the Cubs struggle to get going. (“You go, we go.”)
But what about next year?
It certainly feels odd to begin talking about the offseason, given that the Cubs still have at least three more NLCS games to play, but they’ll face a big question with Fowler once again this year. Although, this time it may be even more difficult.
While they’ll undoubtedly present him with a qualifying offer, the decision of whether or not to expand that into a full-on extension is a bit trickier than last year. For one, the Cubs have Jason Heyward – whom they did not have at the beginning of last offseason – and he’s expected to rebound at the plate in 2017, as well as provide the ability to play quality defensive center field. They also have (or can plan on having) Albert Almora Jr.’s first full professional season, a healthy year out of Jorge Soler, the expected return of Kyle Schwarber, and even the emergence of Javy Baez to consider when composing the outfield.
The last one, in particular, might throw an added wrench into things.
I don’t want to get to deep into the weeds of the 2017 defensive alignment right now, but you have to assume that Javy Baez has played himself into a heck of a lot more time at second and third base next season. That means that every now and then Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist might bounce out to the outfield, as well. In total, then, you have seven players (Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras) capable of and willing to play the outfield at a high level. The Cubs simply have a lot of positional talent and, unfortunately, all but Fowler are already locked up for next season.
For what it’s worth, Nightengale reports that Fowler is expected to test the market and specifically mentions the St. Louis Cardinals as thought to be waiting for his availability. But like I said, we have a long time before we need to worry about that. Let’s just hope the Cubs don’t have to start considering these moves for a couple more weeks, right?