In an off-season full of big ticket signings like Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey, the Cubs surprised everyone (including his teammates) when they managed to re-sign Dexter Fowler to a one-year, $8 million deal ($13 million guaranteed). Their offensive catalyst helped spark the lineup and as a whole center field combined with four other players to bat .278/.375/.456 with 39 doubles, nine triples, 19 homeruns, 66 RBI and 15 steals.
It’s hard to say if a strong free agent market of outfielders affected Fowler’s earning power last off-season, but it’s fair to say that the Cubs were the benefactor of one more season of their leadoff hitter. Fowler had arguably one of his best seasons where he batted .276/.393/.447 with 25 doubles, seven triples, 13 homeruns, 48 RBI and 13 stolen bases.
Manager Joe Maddon’s famous quote, “You go, We go” described the Cubs offense with Dexter Fowler atop it perfectly. During wins, Fowler batted a tremendous .310 with a .927 OPS and just .205 with a .649 OPS in losses. When Fowler was felled with a hamstring issue during June and July, the team went just 9-16 with him out of the lineup.
Fowler also made his presence known for the first time in the field. Long known as a below average centerfielder, he worked with Cubs coaches and improved his fielding to average in center for the first time in his career. The hard work paid off in the playoffs when he flashed the leather in two awesome diving catches in Game 1 of the NLCS.
At the end of the season, Fowler again filed for free agency and rejected the team’s qualifying offer. This time around, Fowler has a lot less competition and aside from Yoenis Cespedes is probably one of the top bats to get in the outfield. While the front office hasn’t closed the door on Fowler entirely, it’s more likely that Cubs fans will see their beloved centerfielder playing in another uniform.
Fowler’s injury last year gave the team and fans to get a glimpse of a possible long term answer in center in Albert Almora Jr. The sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft played in 33 games and batted .262/.295/.464 with six doubles, one triple, three home runs and seven RBI. His bat is still a work in progress and will never come close to the patient approach of Fowler. He is a player that makes a lot of solid contact and doesn’t really strike out much. Almora Jr. has shown early that his instincts in the field and on the base paths are already Major League ready.
It was Almora Jr’s heads up base running that helped the team score the go ahead run in Game 7 of The World Series. In Game 3 of the NLDS, he didn’t let an out of reach ball that led to a go ahead triple faze him and engineered an inning ending double play with a magnificent catch and throw. Almora Jr. will likely earn himself the fourth outfielder job in Spring Training to learn in the right situations similar to how Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have been handled the past two seasons under Joe Maddon.
Another possible replacement for Fowler could be Jason Heyward who played 24 games in center and had an absolute disaster of a first season in Chicago. His struggles will be profiled a little more closely in our next installment, but at the plate he looked a lot more comfortable when he lined up as the captain of the outfield. In 80 at bats, he slashed .288/.348/.413 with five doubles, one triple, one home run, nine RBI and 2 steals. His impressive defense carried over to center field and UZR had him at 26.9, well above average.
Matt Szczur and Kris Bryant also lined up in center with Szczur gaining the most time with 15 games played. In limited time, he batted an impressive .296/.321/.630 with three doubles, two home runs and three RBI in just 27 at bats. Szczur is likely on the outside looking in with Almora Jr. replacing him on the playoff roster and likely ticketed for a much bigger role. Bryant played just one inning in center and will likely do the same next year whenever Maddon decides to give the NL MVP a thrill during the season.
It’s been reported that the front office could be looking for a left-handed hitting outfielder to man center field if Fowler hasn’t been brought back and names like Charlie Blackmon, Brett Gardner and Travis Jankowski have been floated as possibilities.
Charlie Blackmon is the clear best option of those and rumors about Blackmon have been swirling for several years. Along with Blackmon, the Colorado Rockies already had three left handed hitting outfielders in Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra. The emergence of prospect David Dahl brings that total to four and gives them a surplus. He’s been quietly one of baseball’s best outfielders and batted a fantastic .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 home runs, 82 RBI and 17 stolen bases. On the defensive side, he’s been below average in center for a few years, but so was Fowler and coaches could help Blackmon be serviceable. He is under team control through 2018 and is arbitration eligible this year, and with numbers like that, he’s not going to come cheap and will likely cost pitching prospects as the Rockies are pretty well loaded on young hitters.
Brett Gardner could be the next best option and the Cubs have also been linked to him for a while. He’s a very similar player to Fowler, one who knows how to work a count, get on base and has a little bit of speed on the bases. The previous two years he also showed some power, but last season that disappeared as he batted .261/.351/.362 with 22 doubles, six triples, seven home runs, 41 RBI and 16 stolen bases. He hasn’t played center field with any regularity since 2013, but has been one of the better defensive left fielders in the American League winning a Gold Glove there this past season. He’s under team control through 2018 with $24 million owed, but is 33 and could start to decline. The Cubs and Yankees are pretty familiar with each other having matched up on two trades over the last year, so a trade could be completed easily.
Travis Jankowski is a new name in the trade rumor mill and could find himself squeezed out of a Padres outfield that has a lot of talent for not a lot of spots. The 44th overall pick of the 2012 draft is somewhat of a one dimensional player who relies mostly on speed to get the job done. Last year in 131 games, he batted .245/.332/.313 with 13 doubles, two triples, two home runs, 12 RBI and 30 stolen bases. He’s an above average fielder and is under team control until 2021. For that kind of control, he’s going to be fairly costly, but with the Cubs also being interested in Tyson Ross who recently underwent shoulder surgery, perhaps a larger deal could be made.
Cubs 2016 Position Reviews
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