Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fowler Fits Cubs Plan

Trading for Fowler is a win-now move by the Cubs (USA Today)
The Chicago Cubs continued to improve this offseason, swapping a utility man (Luis Valbuena) and a busted starting pitcher (Dan Straily) to the Houston Astros for Dexter Fowler yesterday.

The Cubs sold high on Valbuena, their third baseman who enjoyed a career year last year at 28. With uberprospect Kris Bryant expected to take over at the hot corner shortly, Valbuena had become expendable, so Chicago turned him and Straily into a center fielder, something the Cubs never really had last year.

Former skipper Rick Renteria relied primarily on Emilio Bonifacio (fine utility guy, but not an everyday player) and, after Bonifacio was dealt to the Braves, a raw 22 year-old rookie by the name of Arismendy Alcantara, who did his best Jackie Bradley, Jr. impression by posting a paltry .621 OPS. Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, and Justin Ruggiano, none of whom are any good, also spent significant time in center. Not surprisingly, Chicago got next-to-nothing from its center fielders, who batted a measly .222/.264/.346 last year, making that the team's weakest position OPS-wise. No team got less offense from its center fielders than the Cubs, who had the third-worst crew of center fielders overall based on fWAR.

Fowler, a solidly above average hitter with an established track record, represents a clear upgrade offensively that figures to add several wins to Chicago's ledger this year. The Cubs are getting a 29 year-old center fielder who's typically good for 10-15 home runs, 10-15 steals, and a very high on-base percentage every year. Last year, the former Rockie proved he could hit away from Coors Field by enjoying his best offensive season on a league and park adjusted basis with a 124 wRC+, batting .276/.375/.399 despite missing seven weeks in the middle of the season with back tightness.

That high OBP wasn't a fluke, either. Fowler has always been great at getting on base and owns a .366 career OBP to prove it. The switch-hitting leadoff man also brings some speed to the table, having swiped 94 bases and legged out 57 triples over the past six seasons. Despite his mediocre theft success rate (67.6 percent), he ranks 25th in baserunning value since the start of the 2009 season. He's no Juan Pierre either, offering slightly above average power (career .149 ISO) that stands to benefit from Wrigley Field's friendly confines.

While Fowler is a good hitter, he is not without flaws. He strikes out a lot for someone who's never hit 15 homers or slugged .475 in a season, and the metrics have never loved his defense. Like many Rockies past and present, Fowler's also had trouble staying healthy, as he's never played 145 games or recorded 500 official at-bats in any season. As such, B-R and FanGraphs agree that he has never once been worth three WAR.

Fowler is also not a long-term fix. Now in his final year of arbitration, he expects to earn around $10 million this year before becoming a free agent next winter, meaning he's a not inexpensive short-term solution.

But he is a solution, and a good one at that. With Chicago leaning on so many youngsters to carry the offensive load this season, Fowler is a proven performer with a steady history of success. In addition to setting the table for the likes of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jorge Soler, he'll add some much-needed veteran presence and leadership to a team short on both. Best of all, he's a good center fielder, which is something the Cubs desperately needed (but could trade if they stumble through another terrible season).

Based on their splashy Jon Lester signing and serious pursuit of Russell Martin earlier this winter, the Cubbies are making a strong push to contend in 2015. Fowler fits into the plan.

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