Friday, February 26, 2016

Baseball's Best Team Just Got Better

Fowler set career-highs in several categories last year (Fox Sports)
Okay, Cubs, we get it. You're clearly the best team in baseball, and you have been for a while now. You don't need to get any better. So just, you know, chill out already.

The Cubs didn't have to do anything this winter, not after spending wads of cash and winning 97 games last year. They already had the NL's reigning Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon), Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta), and a legitimate MVP candidate (Anthony Rizzo). They'd acquired Jon Lester, built a young, power-laden lineup, and assembled a formidable bullpen. They had no weaknesses.

But that didn't stop them from going out and splurging on Jason Heyward, giving him the biggest deal handed to a position player this winter. That didn't stop them from signing Ben Zobrist, one of baseball's best and most versatile assets. That didn't stop them from bringing in Lester's old rotationmate (and fellow World Series champion) John Lackey to bolster their rotation.

After all that, the Cubs had assembled what most pundits agreed was baseball's best team; not by a little, but by a lot. Chicago hadn't replaced players who'd left, as some teams do during free agency; they'd added on to what was already a championship-caliber core.

The only key contributor from last year who wouldn't be returning, it seemed, was Dexter Fowler, the team's center fielder and leadoff man. Fowler had quietly been one of the Cubs' better players, leading the club with 102 runs, 20 stolen bases, and 84 walks while supplying a career-high 17 homers. Chicago had opted to replace him with a younger, better, and wildly more expensive player in Jason Heyward, even though Heyward had spent just 32 of his career 835 games (less than 4 percent) in center. And with youngsters Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber flanking him, his job wasn't going to be any easier.

So, rather than move forward with a potentially disastrous outfield alignment, the Cubs traded Chris Coghlan and brought Fowler back on a one-year, $8 million deal with a $9 million option for 2017.

It's a crummy deal for Fowler, who turned down Chicago's $15.8 million qualifying offer and had reportedly secured a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles, but a steal for the Cubs. No one was getting a better bargain than what Chicago's other team got on Mat Latos, but this contract still qualifies as highway robbery. Fowler, who turns 30 next month, was worth $25.6 million last year based on FanGraphs's WAR/$ conversion and hasn't been worth less than $10 million since 2010. The Cubs are going to get their money's worth, and then some.

More importantly, signing Fowler allows everyone to return to their natural positions. Heyward goes back to right (where he's a three-time Gold Glove winner) while the kids split time in left. Yes, it's crowded, but I guarantee that every GM would tell you he'd rather have four good outfielders than three. It opens up trade possibilities, plus you never know when injuries are going to crop up. It's also likely that Schwarber and/or Soler will suffer growing pains this year, as they've played fewer than 200 major league games between them.

With Fowler back on board, the Cubs have everything. They have an excellent outfield, a stellar infield (Bryant and Rizzo at the corners, Zobrist and Addison Russell up the middle, and Miguel Montero behind the plate), a deep rotation headed by Arrieta and Lester, a terrific bullpen, and the best manager in baseball, not to mention a huge payroll and a saavy front office. Chicago's cup runneth over, so my only question is; how does this team not win 100 games and the World Series this year?

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