There are a couple very key differences between this time last season and right now (the Cubs just won it all, the free agent class is very weak, and the man is coming off an even better season with vastly improved defensive metrics), but the overall story involving the Cubs and free agent center fielder Dexter Fowler is very similar.
In short, everyone knows Fowler is very good and the Cubs are better with Fowler than without him, but the Cubs have a crowded outfield situation and arguably greater needs elsewhere. Further, the desire for bats around baseball should theoretically create a greater demand for Fowler’s services on another team than on the Cubs.
That was all the story last year before Fowler’s surprise Spring Training return, and it’s the story again this year. Thus, a return should not be the presumption.
But, then, Fowler did return last year, even as it crowded the outfield in awkward ways last year. A Chris Coghlan trade and Kyle Schwarber’s injury in April quickly uncrowded things (thank heavens for Fowler, eh?), but it would be revisionist history to say it wasn’t a huge surprise that the two sides paired back up.
So, I won’t completely rule it out this time around, despite the changes in circumstance noted in the first paragraph’s parenthetical.
For his part, Fowler is expected to decline the qualifying offer the Cubs made him on Monday (we could surmise as much, but if you need a report to say it, Jon Heyman has you covered), and head full on into a free agent market that figures to value him more fairly than it did last offseason. The deadline for accepting or rejecting the offer is Monday, November 14.
Even if Fowler, who turns 31 in March, heads into free agency, the Cubs are likely to stay in communication with a guy who has been so critical to their excellent 2015 and 2016 season.
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer tells Jerry Crasnick that the Cubs are interested in retaining Fowler, and will engage in discussions with Fowler’s agent. I can imagine scenarios where a reunion becomes plausible, but it would probably once again require Fowler’s market not being quite as robust as expected, and also the Cubs picking up a pitcher or two on the trade market.
We’ll see how this plays out, and whether Fowler’s market quickly takes off, as we expect it could. If Fowler does leave, the Cubs will get a compensatory draft pick after the first round in the 2017 draft, and they will probably be left to fill center field (and the leadoff spot) internally. Given Jason Heyward’s ability to play center field and the presence of Albert Almora Jr., I don’t have significant concerns about filling the center field spot effectively (though the drop-off in defense in right field at that point could be dramatic if the Cubs go with, for example, Jorge Soler there instead of Heyward). The leadoff spot is a much trickier question, as the Cubs do not have an obvious internal option at present.
But then, it’s not like Joe Maddon is opposed to getting creative.