In his two years in Chicago, Dexter Fowler has typified the phrase manager Joe Maddon would regularly utter to his leadoff man as the game started: you go, we go.
During that time, Fowler has posted a .261/.367/.427 line (119 wRC+), has played above-average defense in center field, and has been worth 8.0 WAR. Know how many full-time center fielders in baseball have been worth more in those two years? Just two. Lorenzo Cain, and some guy named Mike Trout.
Fowler was especially good in 2016, when he was an All-Star and posted a career-best 4.7 WAR.
The biggest step forward for Fowler in 2016 was, in fact, a step back. That is to say, his defensive position improved by playing a little bit deeper, and he was rewarded with defensive metrics that say he became an average or slightly above average defensive center fielder after a career of not being anything close to that (again, according to the metrics; he had seen some improvements in his first year with the Cubs, though there was some debate about how legitimate those metric improvements were).
The question of Fowler’s defense in 2016 is a rather significant one as Fowler hits free agency for the second time in two years. Even in a loaded free agent class after the 2015 season, I can’t help but believe Fowler would have received the sizable free agent contract he desired if teams were convinced he could pair his excellent bat with average defense in center field. If teams believe he’s that guy now? Or even with slightly above-average defense? A four-year deal is a cinch, and he might even get a fifth year.
But was Fowler’s defense fundamentally different in 2016 in a way that will carry forward? That’s a really tough call, given what we know about advanced defensive metrics, and how wildly they can fluctuate over even a full season’s worth of statistics. We don’t know whether Fowler’s positioning or his outfield-mate in right field (Jason Heyward) simply masked issues that remain, and would manifest themselves with another team.
Among other Fowler bits, Craig Edwards got into that very issue in a very interesting write-up at FanGraphs.
You should read the whole piece for the blow-by-blow, but the upshot is that, even if you are as skeptical of Fowler’s defensive improvement as Edwards has been, Fowler can still be worth the four-year, $60+ million contract he’s expected to get. And if he’s truly become an average or better defensive outfielder? Well, that version of Fowler could be worth $80 to $100 million over five years.
Fowler’s offensive profile is one that tends to age well, which gives him a great deal of buffer against the downside risk in his defensive ability. Although Edwards doesn’t get into it, I’d add that there’s a possibility a team signing Fowler could wind up moving him to a corner outfield spot (if the improvements in center field aren’t carried forward, for example), where perhaps he is average or better defensively. If so, the bat could still play there, and he could still be well worth whatever contract he winds up signing.
But what about the Cubs and Fowler?
We’ve had this discussion here and there throughout posts and in the comments, so you should know the drill by now: in a thin free agent class, and coming off of a career year (his second career year in a row), the competition for Fowler should be significant. The Cubs have long-term needs in the rotation that will materialize most prominently when (1) the free agent market for pitching is strong, and (2) the Cubs’ costs associated with arbitration-level position players will be exploding. The organization is still somewhat limited in its spending ability through 2019, so resources must still be allocated thoughtfully. When pairing all of those considerations with what is already a crowded outfield, and it doesn’t seem like the highest bid for Fowler is going to come from the Cubs.
Should it, though? Especially given all that we just said above about the likelihood that Fowler is worth his next contract? It’s just a tough question to answer. No one can argue that the Cubs aren’t better with Fowler. Dude is good. Moreover, his offensive skill set is just so damn beautiful atop the Cubs’ lineup, where they don’t really have a great option to replace him in the leadoff spot.
But, well, all those other considerations. I won’t belabor it.
In the end, I think the Cubs’ approach with respect to Fowler should be much like it was this time last year, when a great deal of these considerations were identical. Be interested. Stay in touch. If something crazy happens in his market and a deal that’s too good to pass up materializes – and wouldn’t necessarily preclude anything on the pitching side – then take a shot. Given Fowler’s huge season and the weak market, though, I have a very hard time seeing that happen this time around.