There has never been a better time for center fielder Dexter Fowler to be a free agent. Coming off an enormously successful season with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs, he has the glow of a winner all over him. His name recognition is through the roof, and he’s the kind of hot signing that will blow up the MLB trade sites the moment it happens.
When Fowler decided to re-sign with the Cubs on a one-year deal last spring, he did it with one thing in mind: winning. Now that he has the ring and the glory, it may be time to test how big his paycheck can get on the free market, because he will never have a better opportunity to cash in. Teams looking to sign him are getting a player whose desire to win may be just what they need to compete next year.
With the Tigers in need of a speedy baserunner and a reliable center fielder, Fowler might be just the thing to appease restless fans. and also fill gaps in the Tigers bench for next season. But is he worth the price tag?
Who is he?
Fowler was the Cubs’ switch-hitting leadoff center fielder last season, but he spent the bulk of his career withe the Colorado Rockies before a brief stint with the Houston Astros in 2014. After just one year in Houston, the Astros traded him to Chicago for pitcher Dan Straily and infielder Luis Valbuena. Fowler is a career .268/.366/.422 hitter, who had his best seasons in 2012 with .300/.389/.474 and in 2016 with the Cubs, hitting .276/.393/.447. The latter earned him his first spot on an All-Star roster.
Fowler charmed baseball fans through the 2016 season while the Cubs blazed a trail of glory to their big World Series win, and with good reason: he made a conscious decision to stay with the Cubs one more year when he reached free agency at the end of the 2015 season, rather than taking potentially bigger offers elsewhere. He wanted to be with the team when they won, which shows a rare kind of allegiance to a team he had only been with for one year, at the time.
Why should we care?
Now that the Tigers have traded away Cameron Maybin, they need a reliable center-fielder, and Fowler is one of the most exciting options available on the market. He’s a skilled player, with a decent .984 career fielding percentage. He knows how to take a walk — he had 79 of them last season, a 14.3 percent rate — and can hit a triple like nobody’s business. Last season, Fowler managed 45 extra base hits, including 25 doubles and seven triples. By contrast, Maybin, the speediest member in the Tigers batting order, had only 14 double and five triples. With speed being something the Tigers lack, Fowler would certainly be an appealing option in that capacity.
Fowler is high status and looking for a long-term contract, likely something in the four to five-year range. If the Tigers were to commit to a long-term deal with Fowler, it would set them up to have a bigger-name player in their dugout after a lot of contracts expire next season. However, spending big money on a long-term deal with Fowler, who is already 30 and has been playing for eight full seasons, might not be a smart move if we look at his less desirable qualities.
Why should we stay away?
Fowler is good, but he’s not great. He is expected to make about $60 million over four years wherever he lands, and while his status is hot hot hot, his bat is lukewarm. His 2016 numbers were decent (.276/.393/.477) but hardly the sort of stats to break the bank over. He hit only 13 home runs and scored 84 runs in 125 games at the top of the Cubs’ lineup. The Tigers need a strong center-fielder — or any center-fielder, at the moment — but they can’t really depend on Fowler to bring significant heat with his bat, which is something that soured Detroit fans against Justin Upton initially.
As far as fielding goes, it’s worthwhile to note that Fowler is stronger with plays in the center field zone, having an RZR of .929, but a relatively unimpressive out of zone (OOZ) play record of only 49. By contrast, Maybin had 57 in 253 fewer innings last year. Fowler is consistently listed as an error leader, with the fifth most errors committed by an active player. In 2016, he was only among the top five for one major fielding stat: total zone runs. If we review his DRS and UZR, his numbers tilt away from average and dip into the abysmal. Last season with the Cubs, both his DRS and UZR were only +1, the first time either number was in the positive since 2008. At their worst, his DRS was -20 and his UZR was -36.2 (a score of 0 is considered “average” and a -15 considered “awful”). With his numbers either unexceptional or downright worrisome in both batting and fielding — not to mention his age — he isn’t particularly worth the financial risk to the Tigers.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Let’s get real here: as fun as it is to speculate about big names joining the team, this is the longest of long shots. Sure, the Tigers signed Justin Upton to a big contract last season. But those were the buying years. This is unlikely to be a year where we see the Tigers make major moves in the offseason for heavy contracts, unless they are trades. Fowler is going to earn big bucks somewhere — hello, Texas Rangers? — but Detroit won’t be that location. The Tigers have already said they aren’t looking to buy big, and an extra $15 million per year (or more) won’t help them do that. In this situation, the reward isn’t worth the financial risk.