To say that the re-signing of Dexter Fowler was a surprise last Thursday is an understatement. It seemed a foregone conclusion to most including myself that the Cubs would start the season with Jason Heyward in center field, especially with reports that Fowler had signed a three-year deal with the Orioles. Instead, an opt-out after the first year proved to be the difference and Fowler re-upped with the Cubs. The deal is for $8 million including a mutual option for $9 million with a $5 million buyout. The signing of Fowler changes the whole landscape of the outfield, so let’s take a closer look.
In many respects, Fowler had a career year with the Cubs last season. He batted .250/.346/.411 with 29 doubles, eight triples, 17 home runs, 46 RBI and 20 stolen bases. He set career marks in at-bats (596), games played (156), runs scored (102), hits (149), home runs and strikeouts (154). He was a steadying presence at the top of a young lineup and gave the team a bon-a-fide leadoff hitter with speed, something they had arguably been missing since Juan Pierre.
With that in mind, it’s a little curious why the front office was seemingly letting Fowler go this offseason and not making more of an effort to sign him long term. The switch hitter had some struggles that may have given them pause. First, the team may have wanted an upgrade defensively even though Fowler had his best season defensively.
That best rate was a -1.9 UZR/150 rating, which is just a little below average. Fowler struggled with his consistency at times as well. In the first half, Fowler batted just .232/.308/.369, but really heated up in the second half with a .272/.389/.463 slash line. Fowler also needs to improve his splits. He batted just .228 against right-handers. His .326 average against lefties, was almost 100 points higher. If he’s going to leadoff for a much better lineup, he’s going to really have to be better.
Heyward will still likely be the main backup in center field since he was projected to start there prior to the signing of Fowler. We will profile Heyward further in our right field profile.
On defense, Heyward has just 32 games of experience in center field and will likely spend some time in spring learning the routes. He graded out as great and could be an improvement over Fowler when he plays. Some of the high praise likely comes from the fact that he’s arguably the best defender in right field in baseball thanks to two straight Gold Gloves. That elite defense in right field could help Fowler focus more on the left side to cover for Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber who will now share left field.
Battling for the title of fifth outfielder is likely between Javier Baez, Matt Szczur and Shane Victorino. Victorino hasn’t played center field much in the past two years due to injuries. We will profile him further in the right field preview.
Javier Baez is a near lock to make the roster as he’s expected to play a super-utility role. He recently spent four games in the Puerto Rico winter league in center and didn’t embarrass himself. He’s slated to spend a lot of time there in the spring as the front office has praised his instincts in the outfield. It will be interesting to see how he progresses and if the team will trust him in crucial situations once the season starts.
Matt Szczur is probably also in a fight for the last roster spot. Over the last two years, Szczur has made the drive from Triple-A Iowa to Wrigley Field quite a bit and has played in 80 total games. He hasn’t gotten any regular playing time, which may explain why he hasn’t shown much with the bat. In 146 at-bats, he has a .224/.276/.333 line with seven doubles, three home runs, 13 RBI and two stolen bases. It’s reasonable to think with more reps, he could be a better hitter as he’s a career .281 hitter in the minors. His speed and defense are his other main assets. At the minor league level, he’s stolen 140 bases in 183 tries and uses that speed to take good routes to balls and can play all three outfield positions. The front office will likely take a long look at Szczur in spring in center field. He’s played just 15 games there at the Major League level usually playing in the corners as a defensive replacement. That trust in his defense could help Szczur secure the final outfield slot over Baez.
Other potential options in the fifth outfield role include active roster players Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara and invitees Albert Almora Jr., John Andreoli and Juan Perez.
Of the five, all eyes will likely be on Almora Jr, in camp. The front office’s first draft pick has taken a little longer to develop than others and this will be some fan’s first glimpse of him. At 18, Almora Jr. was much younger than names like Bryant and Schwarber when drafted. His youth and injuries have caused him to struggle at times. Last season, he played in 106 games at Double-A Tennessee and batted .272/.327/.400 with 26 doubles, four triples, six home runs, 46 RBI and eight stolen bases. Scouts say he can be a little aggressive at the plate, but luckily it doesn’t lead to strikeouts as he had just 47 last year. The aggressiveness also means he doesn’t walk as much, but he is getting a little better as his 32 walks were his highest number yet. If he can improve his patience, he might be able to get better use of his raw power. Almora Jr. is probably Major League ready with his defense though and that could earn him a potential call-up sometime this season if he’s needed. Of course that all depends on his continued maturation and how the front office feels he’s progressing. With the signing of Fowler, the Cubs may opt to be more patient with him. If it does happen, he’d likely bat ninth like Addison Russell did.
John Andreoli and Juan Perez probably have better chances at Major League innings in center than Bryant or Alcantara and could be dark horses for the last roster spot depending on how they hit.
John Andreoli is a former 11th round draft pick in 2011 and has spent his whole career in the Cubs minor league system. He’s worked mostly in the corners, but has played 94 games in the middle. Last season at Iowa, he batted .277/.372/.401 with 20 doubles, six triples, five home runs, 32 RBI and 33 stolen bases. Scouts say he’s a gamer with little power. He’s an elite defender in the corners, but despite his speed only serviceable in center field. He’s pretty much produced at every level and the invite to spring is his shot to show what he has.
Juan Perez is a minor league signing who spent his whole career with the San Francisco Giants getting limited time in the majors with them over the past three years. In 117 games, he owns a .224/.267/.316 slash line with 15 doubles, two home runs, 13 RBI and three steals. He’s walked just 12 times and struck out 52 and hasn’t shown a lot of patience in the minors either. His defense has rated well above average at all three positions at the Major League level and could be a useful cog if he can hit in the spring.
Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara are long shots for playing time in center. Bryant is currently penciled in as the starting third baseman and will get outfield time in the corners sprinkled in here and there. He should see time in center in extreme emergency situations or in double switches. Alcantara will probably continue to serve as minor league depth. Once a highly touted prospect, Alcantara’s plate discipline has gone missing. As profiled in our second base preview, Alcantara needs a strong spring to be considered as a potential call-up down the line or as trade bait to another organization.
Just a few days ago, center field was probably the biggest question mark going into this season. The signing of Dexter Fowler changes all that. Heyward no longer has to play all season in a position he has limited experience in next to question marks in Schwarber and Soler on the corners. Fowler gives the team another contact hitter with on base skills to add further balance to an already stacked lineup and if he can stay consistent throughout the entire year, other teams in the National League will be on notice.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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