By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Does center fielder Dexter Fowler still make sense for the Chicago Cubs? Judging by the moves made by team management so far this offseason, it would appear that the train has left the station without Fowler on board for 2016.
Still, nothing’s set in stone yet for the Cubs, as they continue to field calls on outfielder Jorge Soler and some of the other talented young players in their system.
Adding outfielder Jason Heyward (23 steals and .359 on-base percentage in 2015) to the lineup greatly enhances the Cubs’ batting order. He also helps replace the speed and on-base ability the Cubs may lose without Fowler (20 steals, .346 OBP) leading off. With the addition of second baseman/utilityman Ben Zobrist, the Cubs have the luxury of batting Heyward or Zobrist anywhere from one through six in the order.
Despite those positives, the Cubs still want to tighten up the outfield defense and keep some speedy players intertwined throughout that potent lineup.
Fowler played a career-high 156 games in 2015. Motivated by manager Joe Maddon and his impending free-agent status, he put up career-best marks in home runs (17), runs (102) and walks (84). The slow-developing free-agent outfield market may have hit Fowler harder than any other player this offseason. Set to turn 30 in March, Fowler was looking for three or more years at $15 million annually. The Cubs extended a one-year, $15.8-million qualifying offer in November that was rejected. (The Cubs will receive a draft pick if Fowler signs elsewhere.)
The Cubs would have to move an outfielder in order to bring back Fowler. A contract for Fowler at this point from the Cubs most likely would be a club-friendly two-year deal with an option (likely for $26 million to $30 million in total). The Mets were in on Fowler earlier this offseason but appear to be going with a platoon in center after reports surfaced they they’ve agreed to a one-year deal with former White Sox outfielder Alejandro De Aza. Other clubs like the Giants and Nationals that looked to add outfielders have dragged their heals in negotiations over the past seven weeks.
Fowler was a great source of energy for the Cubs in the second half of the 2015 season. As the team prepared to play every day, Maddon and the coaching staff made motivating Fowler a priority, with plenty of positive reinforcement.
“As you go, we go” was the message delivered by Maddon to Fowler before each contest.
The overall defensive metrics were below league average for Fowler last season. He saved his best defensive games away from the hard brick walls and swirling winds of Wrigley Field. Fowler also ended up with an on-base percentage of .346, 17 points below his career average of .363. He hit .250, 17 points below his career .267 batting average.
The Cubs would love to have a pair of speed players who can hit one-two in the batting order. In a potential situation of Fowler leading off and Heyward hitting second, Maddon could count on two players capable of getting on base and who could steal a base, score from first on a double or hit a home run. That combination would set the table for the big run producers and high on-base percentage sluggers who follow in the lineup.
The agents for Fowler — Excel Sports Management — also represent Heyward, which could help with communications as the Cubs continue to consider their offseason moves. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein was adamant Saturday in telling 670 The Score that Chicago wouldn’t trade Soler unless they were completely blown away in a deal. A trade for another top-of-the-rotation pitcher like San Diego’s Tyson Ross or Cleveland’s Danny Salazar would be the type of return that the Cubs would desire.
Another option the Cubs have considered was a deal offered by the Braves that centered around sending center fielder Ender Inciarte to Chicago. The Rays, Maddon’s former team, would consider moving starting pitching and relievers in the right deal for young hitters.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.