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Is Aroldis Chapman or Dexter Fowler More Critical to Cubs' 2017 Repeat Push?

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2016

Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler smiles as he points during a celebration honoring the World Series champions at Grant Park in Chicago, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Let's pretend for just a moment that Theo Epstein isn't some sort of divine power, which, if you polled those in Chicago, is the pervasive feeling since baseball underwent its version of an apocalypse: a Chicago Cubs World Series win.

We'll then acknowledge that the Cubs president of baseball operations cannot possibly lure every free agent to his club. That would mean free-agent closer Aroldis Chapman and center fielder Dexter Fowler, key components to the 2016 squad, may not return.

Truth is it's unlikely that either will rejoin the Cubs in 2017 because, well, Epstein really isn't superhuman. Though after being the architect of the two teams—the Boston Red Sox and Cubs—that broke professional sports' longest championship droughts, we can agree he's the closest baseball has to it.

Each player will be offered lucrative contracts from several teams. No reports, thus far, have indicated the Cubs have made a long-term offer to either player.

But in the event that Epstein is able to wave a magic wand—or more likely team owner Tom Ricketts' checkbook—and convince only one of the two to return to Chicago's north side, he should use it to focus on bringing Fowler back.

He is the more critical player to a Cubs repeat.

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Forget that Chapman was brought to Chicago via a midseason trade with the New York Yankees and was somewhat of a disappointment in the playoffs. The left-handed flamethrower's influence on the Cubs bullpen was overwhelmingly positive.

But even if he were with the team for the entirety of the 2017 season, his impact would be far less than that of Fowler, who served as Chicago's leadoff hitter in 2016.

The easiest way to compare a position player to a pitcher is by using Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an all-inclusive statistic that seeks to measure a player's total value to his team. According to FanGraphs, Fowler's was 4.7 in 2016 compared to Chapman's 2.7, a difference that indicates the former contributed more heavily to Chicago's championship run.

It's too difficult to debate whether Fowler's 84 runs scored is more notable than Chapman's 36 saves in 2016. There's no way to differentiate which is better: Fowler's career-best .393 on-base percentage or Chapman's 0.825 WHIP last season.

As a fielder, Fowler's defensive runs above average was 2.7, according to FanGraphs. That ranked 13th among all MLB outfielders. He brought value to the team with his bat and glove.

But nonetheless, definitively, we can conclude that both players were good in 2016. Arguing who had the better stat line is a futile exercise because pitching is measured much differently than hitting.

Fowler's superior value amounts to this: He plays more games.

Watching a relief pitcher play in the postseason is like reading with a magnifying glass. Everything looks bigger.

Many baseball games—during both the regular season and playoffs—are determined in the late innings with a reliever on the mound. In the playoffs, however, one game means so much more.

The value of a shutdown inning, therefore, is higher in the postseason.

But the San Francisco Giants led MLB in blown saves but still made the playoffs. And once the postseason began, the game's best reliever, Andrew Miller, didn't pitch the ninth inning. Hard-line sabermetricians will argue that a team's best reliever should pitch the eighth inning, not the ninth. So, it stands to reason that the closer position isn't as crucial as during the regular season.

So, a reliever has less influence on a team over the course of a 162-game regular season. One inning pitched just matters less, even if it is in the ninth inning.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a lead off home run in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As a leadoff hitter, Fowler is virtually guaranteed four plate appearances. His ability to score runs far outweighs Chapman's ability to hold a team scoreless in one inning. Reality is that a closer like Chapman is useless without the lead anyway.

This means he needs players like Fowler to score in order to be called out of the bullpen.

And that's probably the reason why manager Joe Maddon tagged the mantra "you go, we go" to Fowler's performance on a given day.

As the leadoff hitter, if Fowler gets on base, it has a residual effect on the rest of the lineup. That equals run production.

And though this may be obvious, it's worth stating: Teams have to score to win.

No matter how well Chapman or any pitcher plays, he can't be the difference in a game when his offense is shut out. But an offensive player can carry a team on a day when his pitching staff is playing poorly.

At this stage in the offseason, though, we are really unsure of what might happen with either player. A dream scenario could be one in which both return, though it's more likely that neither plays for the Cubs in 2017. There are closer options in free agency like Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. The Cubs have internal options as a replacement for Fowler in center field such as Albert Almora and Jason Heyward. If Heyward moved from right to center field, Ben Zorbist could take his place in the outfield.

Then again, Fowler was a free agent last offseason too. Chicago didn't think it had a chance to bring him back, but Epstein pulled it off.

He surprised the team at the beginning of spring training when Fowler walked into the clubhouse. He kept it quiet within the organization and was able to keep the move out of the press. It was an executive's version of a magic trick.

Cubs fans should be hoping for a second act.

       

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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