The Chicago Cubs officially -- more or less -- sent notification that they'll have a new starting center fielder as they look to repeat as World Series champs in 2017. They signed Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract. Although Jay isn't as good as Dexter Fowler, he provides a cheap, one-year stopgap as the club continues to groom Albert Almora Jr. to be the center fielder of the future.
It's possible that Jay will serve as Almora's backup, but I think Almora could use a little more time in Triple-A to work on his approach. He hit .303/.317/.416 at Iowa with just nine walks in 336 plate appearances the past season. Contact isn't the issue; swinging at strikes is. Although Almora held his own in 117 PAs with the Cubs, he had a chase rate of 41.6 percent. That would have been the fourth-highest chase rate among qualified regulars. Fowler, by the way, had the lowest chase rate in the majors, as he swung at just 17.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone.
Right now, Almora projects as a low-OBP guy without much power, with the possibility of getting exposed with regular playing time. The Steamer projection system at FanGraphs sees a .269/.300/.397 line, a big drop from Fowler's .393 OBP. To have any value at all, he has to project as an elite defender. He has that reputation in scouting circles, though Clay Davenport's minor league defensive metrics rated him at minus-4 runs at Iowa.
That's why signing Jay makes sense. He has been a reliable on-base guy -- .352 career, .339 for the Padres in 2016 -- and plays a capable center field, though his metrics were down a bit last season, with minus-5 Defensive Runs Saved. At minimum, he'll spare Almora against the tougher right-handers and provide a good pinch-hitting option off the bench. If Almora isn't ready, Jay can hold down the position without it turning into a major weakness.
Saying goodbye to Fowler leaves the Cubs without an obvious leadoff candidate. Maybe it's Jay, though I could see Ben Zobrist taking over. With Javier Baez seemingly taking over at second base and Kyle Schwarber set to return to left field, it remains to be seen where Zobrist plays. Heck, it's possible Jason Heyward ends up playing some center field, with Zobrist in right. In other words, Joe Maddon will still have lots of toys to play with.
As for Fowler, Steamer projects a decline in 2017 to 2.3 WAR and a .360 OBP. That will still make him a sought-after free agent. He fits with as many as 20 teams, either as a center fielder or a corner outfielder. The Cardinals will certainly make a big push and seem like a possibility for Fowler or Justin Turner. The Giants could use a leadoff hitter and left fielder. The Orioles could use a leadoff hitter and center fielder, with Adam Jones and his declining defense moving to right field. The Dodgers could use Fowler to play left field and hit leadoff.
No matter what, Fowler will be playing somewhere else in 2017. But he is now a Cubs legend.
As for the Padres, Jay wasn't in their plans for 2017. Young outfielders Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe will likely get the chance to start, with speedster Travis Jankowski around as a backup center fielder or starter if Margot returns to Triple-A.