It's no secret that center field used to be the 2015 Chicago Cubs' primary position of weakness. As the players, coaches, ownership and front office members addressed the media at the Cubs Convention, the Cubs were a team overflowing with infielders, plenty of corner outfield options, a trio of MLB catchers, nearly a dozen starting pitching options, and too many bullpen arms to squeeze onto a 25-man roster.
But center field? The center field options consisted of converted middle infielder who didn't own an outfielder's glove until June (Arismendy Alcantara) and a perennially injured reserve who likely finds himself on the roster bubble (Ryan Sweeney). Not exactly the most inspiring options.
With that in mind, many of us spent time considering the Cubs' options on the trade and free agent markets. Unfortunately, short of swinging a deal for Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen, neither seemed to offer a magic solution. That sent us looking toward the second tier of possibly available options, a group that included the likes of the Rays' Desmond Jennings, the Rangers' Leonys Martin, the Rockies' Charlie Blackmon, and even the Dodgers' Matt Kemp.
There was one other name that was repeatedly discussed: the Astros' Dexter Fowler. So, on Monday, the Cubs swung a deal with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow to convert some of the club's surplus into Fowler by sending infielder Luis Valbuena and eighth starter Dan Straily into Fowler's walk year.
So what exactly did the Cubs acquire in Fowler? And how did the do in the trade? Let's take a look.
Simply put, Fowler has a plus offensive game. He has posted a wRC+ of at least 104 in each of the past four seasons, including a career-high 124 in 2014 despite moving his home park to Minute Maid Park away from Coors Field. His on-base skills drive the bus, and he puts his plus on-base ability together with both plus hitting and discipline skills.
Some might be alarmed by his .351 BABIP in 2014, finding the year to be a mirage. However, his career BABIP of .348 should put those fears to rest. Fowler makes tremendous contact with consistently strong line drive rates.
Even with the good stick, Fowler's eye at the plate is his most impactful skill. In fact, the good folks at FiveThirtyEight declared that Fowler is "the best decision-maker at the plate among active players." In examining whether batters swung at strikes and passed on balls, Fowler made a "good decision" 74.2% of the time, finishing nearly a full percentage point ahead of second-place Joey Votto. Fowler's eye and approach should be a blast to watch.
Fowler's abilities as a switch-hitter should enable him to fit into any number of lineup constructions for Joe Maddon. And while Fowler does show a consistently superior short-side platoon split -- hitting left-handed pitching at a 118 wRC+ clip for his career versus 102 versus right-handers -- he's still been plenty effective against hurlers of both handedness.
As an added benefit, although his stolen base percentage leaves a lot to be desired, he has consistently graded out as a plus runner according to baserunning metrics.
Given that he may very well be a one-year acquisition for the Cubs, they have chosen to acquire what may very well be the best year of his career: Fowler is in his prime at age 29 in 2015 (just like me!) and he is in his platform year for free agency. A big year could very well net Fowler a $12-15 million annual guarantee on a multi-year deal; a poor year could leave him in Colby Rasmus territory. With so much at stake, Fowler figures to be highly motivated. A big season also figures to end with a qualifying offer -- if not an extension -- so the acquisition in this trade may well turn out to be one year of Fowler and a compensation draft pick.
Finally, regardless of his abilities at the position, Fowler plays center field. Given the dearth of major leaguers with the ability to play center, Fowler's ability to stay out there has value. More on that in just a bit.
Although the walk-year motivation is a plus, Fowler comes with merely one year of control. A rental is a rental. Fowler almost certainly won't be a long-term piece for the Cubs, particularly with Albert Almora at Double-A and a handful of corner outfield options about a year away as well. At something in the $9.5 million to $10 million range in 2015, Fowler will also cost a pretty penny.
As noted above, Fowler's offensive game is not ideal. His .260/.361/.376 line against right-handed pitching in 2014 was strong, yet his short-side platoon split -- a superb.327/.419/.467 line against southpaws in 2014 -- suggests that his superior skills lie as a right-handed batter. In a division where only two of the 20 projected opposing starters are southpaws (Francisco Liriano and Tony Cingrani), his short-side skills may not have the opportunity to play up.
Though no fault of his own, Fowler's acquisition could create a blockage for Arismendy Alcantara. Many have wanted to see him in a supersub role for the last year or so. His skillset belies such a role: plus speed, good power, consistently improving on-base skills, and an up-the-middle glove. Nevertheless, center field appeared to be his best bet at an everyday gig, something that almost certainly evaporated with Fowler's arrival.
Still, the three drawbacks listed thus far are extremely petty, and they are dwarfed by his two largest and potentially devastating problems: his defense and his health. Fowler has consistently graded as an extraordinary poor defender in center field, so poor that it calls into question the wisdom of handing him an everyday job in the middle of the outfield. By Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, Fowler is a bottom-of-the-barrel glove man in center.
The Cubs front office has a much better understanding of how their own ballpark plays than I do, and they -- much like John Arguello over at Cubs Den -- may figure that Fowler's defense has been seriously negatively impacted by two spacious outfields, an issue that will evaporate in Wrigley's cozy center field.
There are two key problems with this argument. The first is a lack of information. Without taking Fowler out of Coors and Minute Maid, we don't know how he will perform with the glove. The front office likely has access to defensive home/road splits; I don't. The second involves a quick look at other centerfielders who have recently played in Coors and Minute Maid. After Fowler's trade to Houston, Charlie Blackmon took over as the Rockies' primary centerfielder in 2014. In just over 500 innings, Blackmon posted a UZR/150 of -3.4. Hardly an inspiring figure, but compared to Fowler's average year of approximately -11.0 in Denver, it suggests that Fowler's glove actually leaves something to be desired. Michael Bourn's time in Houston is even more painful for a Fowler comparison. Over his three full years in Houston (2008-10), Bourn averaged a UZR/150 of approximately 11.5. The Astros' primary centerfielder in 2013, Brandon Barnes, posted a UZR/150 of 6.2. Fowler? In 2014, Fowler's UZR/150 was an astonishing -36.2.
The gap of 61.5 between Fowler and the top-rated centerfielder by UZR/150 -- the Mets' Juan Lagares at 25.3 -- is twice the defensive gap between shortstops Derek Jeter (-12.5) and Andrelton Simmons (18.5).
Even if the metrics are a little off, it's fair to question whether Fowler can reasonably be trusted to regularly play in center field.
Fowler's health history is also alarming. He missed 45 games in 2014 with back issues, 33 more in 2013 between knee, wrist, and hand injuries, 13 games in the second half of 2012 with wrist and ankle problems, and 14 with an abdomen strain in 2011. Fowler has played more than 135 games in a season just once, in 2012. He rarely misses huge chunks of time, but expecting more than about 130 games from him -- even in his walk year -- seems unwise.
Evaluating the Trade
Of course, even with Fowler's shortcomings, on the whole he is still a positive player given his offensive and running contributions. Yet he still came at a cost. Was that cost worth it?
The first cost to examine is the talent. Dan Straily was terribly underwhelming in 2014, yet his very solid 2013 is hardly a distant memory, a year in which he posted 1.9 WAR over 27 starts for Oakland. At 26, it's still easy to envision a few years of back-end work from Straily, even if his low-velocity arsenal is the opposite of sexy. I'm not sure exactly how to value an eighth starter with a high-80s heater with no hope for a bullpen role, but I do know that Straily's value is relatively low.
That isn't true for Luis Valbuena. Valbuena became a favorite around these parts for his flair (the bat flips! the toe taps as he jogged to first after a walk!), his value (a waiver claim that worked!), and his 6.2 WAR amassed over 1,241 plate appearances from 2012-14. Valbuena was a nice piece. Even those of us who thought that this winter was the right time to trade Valbuena (ME!) recognized his value as a solid starting option with versatility.
It's easy to overstate his value because we like him. Valbuena was a strict long-side platoon bat, posting wRC+s of 72, 81, and 75 against same-side pitching in 2012, '13, and '14. There's also the matter of those pesky defensive numbers, numbers that significantly propped up Valbuena's value for years but that turned south in 2014 at the hot corner. After two marvelous years with the glove in 2012 (27.5 UZR/150) and 2013 (18.6 UZR/150), Valbuena's -4.9 rating in 2014 was a head-scratcher. He produced positive marks in a much smaller sample at second base in 2014, suggesting that his glove work remains solid, yet his primary contribution slipping may have sounded some alarm bells for the front office.
The second cost to examine is cash. Straily is a wash from this standpoint; he was a 40-man roster member who was slated for Triple-A. He could be replaced on the 40-man by another minor leaguer, resulting in no net cost change.
The other cash cost is significant. Fowler is in his final year of arbitration eligibility and has filed for a $10.8 million salary; the Astros countered at $8.5 million. The midpoint is $9.65 million, so if the parties round up to $9.7 million so Fowler will settle, the Cubs will expend an additional $5.5 million in cash after subtracting Valbuena's $4.2 million salary. Hardly insignificant.
Of course, this cash cost may be mitigated and then some. As this Fangraphs piece found, teams seem to value their first-round draft picks at approximately $10-15 million with early second-round picks settling in around $8 million. If the Cubs make Fowler a qualifying offer after the season and he signs elsewhere, the team may expect to pick up this additional $8-10 million asset. In that light, the cost is much lower.
Nevertheless, taken on the whole, to me, it's not worth the combined cost to make this move. I recognize the risk (stupidity?) of rolling with only Alcantara and Sweeney as legitimate center field options. Even then, and even wanting desperately to win in 2015, this price just feels too rich. I don't know the trade market as well as our front office does, but it seems to me that Valbuena could have commanded more, perhaps from a team that plans to compete needing help in the infield such as the Blue Jays or Padres. I recognize that any assets acquired from a serious contender would likely have been future assets instead of present ones. That's fine with me.
Comparing Valbuena and Fowler alone, it seems as though one team should have thrown some sweetener into the deal...and it shouldn't have been the Cubs.
We are far from unanimous in our take here at BCB. I'm almost certainly in the minority.
Having had another day to let the trade sink in, what do you all think? Is the offensive value worth the defensive risk? Does the potential for a compensation pick offset any possible overpay in the deal? There are a lot of moving pieces. Let us know what you think.