<
>

Fowler, and a little Banks inspiration, could do wonders for Cubs

A leadoff threat in Dexter Fowler and playing for Ernie Banks could boost the Cubs' 2015 chances. USA TODAY Sports, AP Photo

CHICAGO -- OK, Anthony Rizzo, you have my attention. Same with you, Sporting News.

Well, sort of.

The aforementioned publication picked the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series in 2015. Some would say that’s bold. I’d call it stupid. Then again, selling papers -- or earning web clicks -- isn't always about what’s smart.

The online magazine made that prediction before the Cubs picked up leadoff man Dexter Fowler. Similarly, Cubs first baseman Rizzo declared his team the one to beat in the National League Central Division just days before Fowler was acquired from the Houston Astros for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily.

Before Fowler, the Cubs had no chance at a world championship. Wait. This is baseball -- anything can happen. Let's rephrase that: They had little chance. Very little. Now? It’s a few percentage points better.

Maybe more.

The Cubs now have a better offense with Fowler, and (sadly) maybe a little more motivation in that they can dedicate their season to Mr. Cub, the late Ernie Banks. It might be cheesy, but perhaps the best way to honor Banks is to do the one thing he wanted more than anything else: see the Cubs win. But motivation won't be enough.

If you can't tell by now, I think Fowler is a huge acquisition. The Cubs are starving for players to get on base at the top of their lineup. Fowler, over six full big league seasons, has done that nearly 37 percent of the time from the leadoff spot. Lest you forget, on-base percentage correlates to runs scored more than any other statistic. Last season, for just one example, six of the top seven teams in on-base percentage were also six of the top seven run-scoring teams.

You would think home runs would correlate some, right? After all, a home run is one run scored, plus any men who might be on base. The Cubs were second in the National League in homers in 2014 -- behind only the Colorado Rockies -- but they were 12th in scoring. In 2013, the Cubs were also second in home runs but 14th in scoring. Those home runs are virtually wasted if men aren't getting on base. These kinds of correlations go back years in baseball. It's why "Moneyball" was born and why, to this day, despite all the new ways to measure offense, getting on base is still No. 1.

So Fowler helps big time, whether he's leading off or a little deeper in the lineup. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 28-year-old had just 148 plate appearances batting first last season for the Astros; 45 players had at least that many. Fowler ranked 11th among leadoff men with a .345 on-base percentage; he was eighth in walk percentage and saw an average of four pitches per plate appearance, good for 13th. He's not a perfect hitter -- his line-drive percentage (17 percent) was second lowest among leadoff men -- and he strikes out a lot, but he doesn't chase pitches. We can break it down a million ways, but the bottom line is that Fowler gets on. That's what the Cubs need.

But there's more. Adding a veteran and subtracting a rookie from the starting lineup is addition by addition -- and maybe addition by subtraction as well, if that makes sense. Fowler pushes Arismendy Alcantara into a new role, perhaps fighting with Javier Baez for playing time at second base. The Cubs would have had no chance this season starting four rookies in Jorge Soler, Alcantara, Baez and Kris Bryant (when he gets here). Now, they'll really be relying on only two: Soler and Bryant -- the best two to rely upon. Alcantara and Baez might feel the pressure to produce to stay in the lineup, but the offense won't be as reliant on them, and maybe the competition will bring out the best in them. Whoever shows more plate discipline than last season might simply be the starter at the end of the day. New manager Joe Maddon can play the matchup game if one starts to excel against certain pitching. He can rest one and not lose a ton of talent. We don't even know if either will be the starter come Opening Day. On-base guy Tommy La Stella is waiting in the wings for a chance as well.

"We added to our depth," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said after acquiring Fowler. "We are a deeper lineup than we were. We are still very reliant on young players. With that, there comes some volatility."

And remember, Hoyer said that after the trade. Just think of the potential volatility before it. It's why I couldn't predict more than a .500 season for the Cubs. Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA predictions -- based on a sabremetric performance forecast -- and has the Cubs at 82-80, just missing the playoffs but finishing behind the St. Louis Cardinals in second place. I'd use that as evidence for my own predictions, but PECOTA has been wrong about predicting things, like the rest of us. It predicted Jeff Samardzija would have an awful year last season, and he had anything but. Sure, it had the Cubs' win total nearly right -- the formula predicted 71 while they won 73 -- but how hard was that? PECOTA is wrong as much as it is right.

So we have one publication saying the Cubs will win it all, another source indicating a .500 season. If things come together, particularly with the addition of Fowler, maybe Rizzo will be closer to being right than anyone. He "only" predicted the playoffs. The Cubs could play meaningful games come August and September; I'll go that far. But that's where I'll agree with PECOTA: They'll come up short.

Then again, maybe Mr. Cub will provide some magic from beyond. A little inspiration and a new leadoff man can go a long way. He's not a big name among casual fans, but Fowler, playing in a contract season, can make a big difference.

"Fowler fits that role for us," Hoyer said. "He controls the strike zone really well."

That’s needed above all else.