CHICAGO -- Make no mistake, the acquisition of outfielder Dexter Fowler by the Chicago Cubs on Monday elevates their offense more than any other move this offseason. Fowler’s impressive .366 career on-base percentage is exactly the same number he produced batting leadoff throughout his seven-year career with both Colorado and Houston.
The Cubs need that in a big way -- as last season they ranked 28th in baseball in getting on base. That includes their centerfielders, who ranked dead last in baseball in on-base percentage at .264. Compare that to Fowler, who got on base almost 38 percent of the time in 2014 and you see why the Cubs made the deal.
“He doesn’t just take pitches to take,” new hitting coach John Mallee said Monday morning. “He takes them because he recognizes the strike zone.”
Mallee coached Fowler in Houston last season and emphasized his keen eye at the plate, stressing his ability not to chase pitches. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the switch-hitting Fowler chased on about 22 percent of pitches over the last two seasons while the league average was about 28 percent. That puts him in the top 25 in baseball.
“He understands the strike zone so well, but it doesn’t take the attack out of him,” Mallee said.
With Fowler and the addition of catcher Miguel Montero, the Cubs addressed their biggest need on offense this offseason without giving up all that much besides money. Fowler has yet to agree to a contract, but he’ll make somewhere in the range of $8-10 million for 2015 before becoming a free agent. Montero is due $40 million over the next three years while the Cubs only gave up pitcher Dan Straily and infielder Luis Valbuena, along with two Class-A pitchers, for both players.
Straily had no chance of making the Cubs roster and while Valbuena has value, he was never going to be an everyday starter and was only holding a spot for Kris Bryant at third base or for whoever emerges at second. The Cubs did pretty well for Valbuena, who was a waiver-wire pickup on the eve of the 2012 season. Now they have a legitimate leadoff hitter. Even if Fowler turns out to be a one-year rental, in this case, he was worth it.
What it means
Fowler takes Arismendy Alcantara's spot in center field, but Alcantara can take Valbuena’s roster spot in the infield. Those two players are the most athletic on the team as both have speed and hit from both sides of the plate. Joe Maddon’s lineup got that much more athletic. He has some toys to play with.
Alcantara now turns into a super sub, at least on paper. The Cubs will work him all around the diamond -- including the outfield -- and there’s always a chance he could emerge as a starter at another position -- say second base. Maddon has already declared it a clean slate so no matter what the Cubs say about Javier Baez, he’s not assured of anything. Last spring, Darwin Barney was Rick Renteria’s starter at second until he wasn’t. That came days before the beginning of the season when Emilio Bonifacio took over, got hot, and never looked back. More competition is never a bad thing.
Third base is wide open for the ascent of minor league player of the year Kris Bryant. Not that Valbuena was blocking him or anything but now we can be assured that Bryant will start his career at third and not in the outfield. Bryant is eligible to come up around April 17 without the Cubs losing a year of free agency for him so someone else will have to play third base in the interim. It doesn’t really matter who it is, but Mike Olt, newcomer Tommy LaStella and even Alcantara are candidates. Don’t be surprised if Alcantara gets reps all over the diamond this spring.
The Cubs lineup now has some legitimacy to it. Until Monday, there was going to be a lot of hope-and-prayer on offense in 2015.
Theo Epstein said just this past Saturday at the fan convention his offense “had a long ways to go”. It still does, but now there is a fighting chance for 2015 instead of just blind hope.
A true leadoff man can set the tone and Fowler’s kind of discipline can trickle down to some other players. At the end of the season the Cubs can assess his value as well as where prospect Albert Almora is in his progression. They’ll be a year closer to deciding their future in center and at the top of the order as they move closer to their peak as a team.
In some ways, Fowler’s addition is as important to the offense as Jon Lester's was for the pitching staff. The Cubs filled a big hole with his acquisition while continuing to keep their highly touted prospect base intact.