Most of the focus at the beginning of the offseason for the Detroit Tigers has been on upgrading their pitching staff. In recent days, comments from general manager Al Avila at the GM meetings in Florida have confirmed that the club would also like to add an outfielder. Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reported that Avila and the Tigers are "looking to add an outfielder," preferably a right handed hitter and one that can play full-time.
It stands to reason that the Tigers would want to replace the lost production of Yoenis Cespedes, who replaced Torii Hunter before him. While both of those players were right-handed hitters, the preference for a right-handed hitting outfielder doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of an everyday player. The Tigers lineup is currently very right hand dominant. Six players in their current starting lineup only bat right, with only Anthony Gose batting left and Victor Martinez as a switch-hitter. It would seem that a left-handed batting left fielder and a right-handed hitter to platoon with Gose in center would make more sense.
There are some premium outfielders on the free agent market this winter, Including Cespedes, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Alex Gordon. Each of those players will be looking for a contract with an annual salary of $20 million or more. Then, there is Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitting outfielder who has played center field his entire career, who was given a qualifying offer of $15.8 million to remain with the Chicago Cubs.
Who is he?
Fowler is a 29-year-old, switch-hitting, speedy outfielder who spent his first four seasons with the Colorado Rockies. He finished eighth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, and was traded to the Houston Astros after the 2013 season. He spent one season in Houston before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs last winter.
Fowler has exclusively played center field during each of his seven seasons in the major leagues. He has hit well from both sides of the plate, with an on base percentage of .351 against righthanders and .392 against lefthanders. He has nearly always hit at the top of the batting order, with over 2,500 of his 3,800 plus career plate appearances coming in the leadoff spot. Last season, he hit .250/.347/.411 atop the Cubs' batting order.
Why should we care?
Fowler gets on base consistently, with an on-base percentage of at least .346 every season. He has remained healthy, logging over 500 plate appearances every season except 2013, when he made 492 PAs. In 2015, he set career highs with 149 hits, 690 plate appearances, 17 home runs, 84 walks, and 20 stolen bases. He could replace Gose in center field everyday, or perhaps take over in left field, relegating Tyler Collins to the bench. However, that would be a risky gamble, and it may be a bit much to expect the Tigers to add starting outfielders in left field and center field.
MLB Trade Rumors lists Fowler as the 16th best free agent this offseason, forecasting a four-year, $60 million contract for him. That would be $4.5 million more than Cespedes was paid in 2015. Fangraphs crowdsourced Fowler at a four-year contract worth $14 million per season. The Tigers should be prepared to spend that much to replace Cespedes in the lineup. Also, Fowler would cost a second round draft pick as compensation since he will turn down a qualifying offer, but we'll chalk that up as a positive since he won't cost a first round pick. Plus, if the Tigers sign another qualified free agent pitcher, the compensation is a third round selection.
Why should we stay away?
Defensive metrics hate Fowler's guts. He has posted negative UZR/150 readings each of the past seven seasons, including a league worst -36.2 in 2014 with Houston. His -1.9 UZR/150 is his best mark over that span. He has a negative DRS in each of the past five seasons, including -12 in 2015. His RZR was respectable last season, but over a five-year period, he ranks 15th of 15 qualified center fielders in that category as well. If Avila is truly into advanced metrics including defensive metrics, these numbers are a bit scary.
Will he end up in Detroit?
There is no question that Fowler would make a nice addition and be a catalyst offensively, but the Tigers would ideally like to add offense in left field and find a platoon partner for Gose in center. With Fowler in center field, left field remains an issue, although a platoon of Tyler Collins and a right handed hitter would be more palatable than with Gose. Fowler did not disappoint the Cubs with his defense last year, and posted 3.2 fWAR. He's not what you think of as a perfect fit, but he could still solve the problem in the outfield.