By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) With just more than three weeks until spring training begins, outfielder Dexter Fowler is still a free agent and looking for a new team. Fowler, who will turn 30 in March, had his best season in 2015 in many offensive areas of his game, as he scored 102 runs and was a catalyst for the Cubs’ offense. With that in mind, he should’ve had a new deal by now.
For various reasons — notably a slow-developing, strange free-agent outfield market — Fowler will most likely have to settle for a one- or two-year contract. As it sits, the Cubs and White Sox appear to be the two teams with the most interest in signing him to a deal.
Both Chicago teams are monitoring the Fowler’s free-agent market daily, according to sources.
“The Cubs are still the most likely landing spot for Fowler,” one baseball executive whose club has also followed the Fowler free-agent process said. “He should have taken the Cubs’ qualifying offer and moved into the free agent class of 2017.”
The Cubs’ convoluted outfield mix would become crystal clear if they re-signed Fowler and traded right fielder Jorge Soler for pitching help. The White Sox also fit well as a possible destination, as they could move Adam Eaton to right field and implement Fowler in center. That would give them two top-of-the-order hitters who get on base consistently and often. Eaton has a career .355 on-base percentage, while Fowler boasts a robust .363 mark.
While the White Sox may lament missing out on another big bat for run production (Yoenis Cespedses, Justin Upton and Alex Gordon), they could use a top-of-the-order hitter like Fowler to set the table and advance their offense with speed and run-scoring ability. Eaton and Fowler combined to score 200 runs in 2015, a season in which the White Sox had the third-worst offense in baseball. Their 622 runs were fewer than what 13 of the 15 National League teams totaled, despite those squads lacking the ability to use a designated hitter on a daily basis.
The Cubs’ offense and defense could be enhanced if they brought back Fowler. Jason Heyward would then play right field, where he’s been a Gold Glove winner previously, and the team’s overall range would improve greatly.
On offense, a lineup headlined by Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Heyward would give the Cubs two switch-hitters to lead off and five straight batters who have an on-base percentage above .350. in that potential scenario, few teams could match up or pitch around a lineup that would hit for average, hit with power, run and get on base well.
In retrospect, Fowler should have taken the one-year, $15.8-million qualifying offer from the Cubs. It would have made him eligible to hit the open market again next offseason, when the oree-agent outfield class will be weak in depth. Carlos Gomez, Colby Rasmus, Josh Reddick and a then-36-year-old Jose Bautista will head that list. Fowler could then get a more lucrative multi-year deal by displaying his impressive skills in two straight seasons.
Fowler was a good teammate with the Cubs, and he had an impressive workout regiment that was stringent in weight training and endurance-building reps. When Fowler was with the Rockies from 2008-’13, he appeared to run into some clubhouse issues with some grizzled veterans, which may have in turn hindered his development. In Chicago, he found his hitting coach from Houston, John Mallee, waiting for him, to quality results. Fowler also became a better defender with the help of coach Davey Martinez.
The final piece of the puzzle for Fowler in 2015 was the positive reinforcement that manager Joe Maddon showered upon him. “You go, we go” was the theme that Maddon hammered home to Fowler before each game in 2015.
The in-vogue two-year deal with a one-year opt-out from either Chicago team would be ideal for Fowler, who made $9.5 million in 2015. A sleight increase in pay by either the White Sox or Cubs would suit the club and the player, considering the way Fowler could impact either offense.
If they sign Fowler, the White Sox would lose the sandwich draft pick they got from right-hander Jeff Samardzija signing with the Giants. The Cubs would lose nothing in bringing their own free agent back.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.