Call the Dexter Fowler re-signing a fantasy-turned-reality for the Chicago Cubs, because any hope that the team could entice Fowler to come back for the 2016 season didn’t seem possible a short while ago.
When the Cubs signed outfielder Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract in December, it essentially took the team out of the Fowler sweepstakes.
He was seeking a lucrative, multiyear deal in a crowded class of 2016 free-agent outfielders. It didn’t appear that the Cubs could meet his demands.
Then nothing happened.
Free agency moved slowly, and the second-tier outfielders like Fowler saw that their value wasn’t as high as they had anticipated. The best option for some free-agent outfielders became signing a one-year deal, giving them the ability to re-enter free agency in 2017 when the outfield class will be weaker.
So Fowler spurned a $35 million offer from the Orioles, which ESPN.com reported to be done pending a physical, and accepted a one-year deal from the Cubs with a mutual option for 2017. The team announced the deal in a press release on Thursday.
The Cubs had a World Series contender. Now, they have their 2016 Dream Team.
"I was happy for Dex," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said to ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers. "He deserves a great moment. We hatched a little plan and were able to pull it off."
Prior to the Fowler signing, I’m sure Epstein cooked up all sorts of different scenarios in his sabermetrics lab at Wrigley Field.
And undoubtedly one of those included playing Heyward in center field.
Given an entire season to play the position, Heyward would probably be an above-average center fielder. In 10 games last year in center—a small sample size—Heyward had a defensive runs saved above average of two.
But he is truly a corner outfielder. His high contract value is largely based upon his defensive metrics and capabilities as a right fielder. Last season, Heyward’s defensive runs saved above average as a right fielder was 22.
With Fowler now on the roster, Heyward can play right field the majority of the time. Fowler has been a career center fielder, playing right field for only one game in eight seasons.
A crowded Cubs outfield that includes Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber—the Cubs also announced Thursday that they traded outfielder Chris Coghlan—might force Heyward into center on Fowler’s off days.
But Fowler’s presence in the lineup allows Heyward to be the everyday right fielder. That makes the Cubs a more analytically efficient team defensively. With one of baseball’s top starting pitcher trios—2015 National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and 2016 signee John Lackey—defense is the Cubs’ top priority.
The move also happens to fill a hole at the top of their lineup, though.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon proved last season that he isn’t afraid to experiment with the leadoff spot, even using the power-hitting Schwarber as the team’s table-setter. But the speedy Fowler provides the Cubs a prototypical leadoff player with the proven ability to get on base.
With the Cubs last season, Fowler broke 100 runs scored for the first time in his career (102). However, he posted career lows in batting average (.250) and on-base percentage (.346), though the latter ranked him 52nd in all of baseball.
Considering the Cubs have added Heyward and Ben Zobrist, and their rookies will be playing with major league experience, the residual effect on the lineup will likely allow Fowler more opportunities to get on base.
Fowler’s best season came in 2012 with the Rockies when he hit .300 and posted an on-base percentage of .389. He is a career .267 hitter with a .363 on-base percentage.
A switch-hitter, Fowler also adds balance to a lineup that looked to be more left-handed prior to his signing. Against left-handed pitching last season, Fowler hit .326 with a .399 on-base percentage. So he adds a solid right-handed bat.
Combined with Heyward at the top of the Cubs’ order, the team has a duo apt to get on base for the power-hitting trio of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Schwarber.
Realistically, Fowler isn’t going to win any team a World Series.
But the Cubs were already contenders before they signed him. His addition only makes them look that much better, like a $10,000 necklace on a supermodel.
Cubs fans have been dreaming the last 108 years. This season, that World Series dream seemed more like a reality—even a possibility.
Dare I say this? Now it’s likely.
Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen and like his Facebook page.