By Bruce Levine–
BOCA RATON, Fla. (CBS) — While the Cubs are certainly looking for starting pitching at these GM meetings in Florida, the leadoff/center field spot is also a major concern for them.READ MORE: Police Warn Of Retail Thefts in Gold Coast
With free agent Dexter Fowler looking for a three- or four-year deal, the club must be proactive and consider he may not return. Team officials must try to find a quality on-base percentage guy who can get into the gaps and cover ground in center as Fowler’s replacement.
Fowler was the catalyst for the Cubs’ run production barrage in the last two months of the 2015 season. He scored 102 runs and had an on-base percentage of .346 for the season, and those numbers would’ve been notably higher had he not slumped for two months before the All-Star break.
Fowler will play at age 30 in 2016. He made $9.5 million last season. Although his routes to the baseball have been in question, he was third in the National League in outfield putouts with 337. Cubs bench coach Davey Martinez helped Fowler improve his defensive metrics and routes with constant help from spring training forward.
The market for outfielders beyond Fowler begins with free agents Denard Span and Gerardo Parra. Span, 31, hit .301 with five home runs and 22 RBIs in 61 games in 2015. He had multiple injuries, including hip and back problems. Span had labrum surgery in September.
Parra, a Gold Glove corner outfielder, split time with the Brewers and Orioles in 2015. He hit .291 with 14 home runs and 51 RBIs. The jury of scouts I talked to aren’t sure Parra has the range to play center field in the bigger National League ballparks.READ MORE: Police Surround Apartment Of Barricaded Subject In Villa Park
A trade for a center fielder would be a bit more difficult to accomplish for the Cubs. Marcell Ozuna of the Marlins may be available in a deal, but at 24, he has yet to show enough on-base ability to hit at the top of the order. Ozuna does have good numbers in the defensive metric area.
Brett Gardner, 31, of the Yankees could be made available in the right deal. Gardner will make $36 million over the next three years with a club option for 2019 at $12.5 million (or a $2 million buyout). Gardner has a .346 career on-base percentage. He can play left or center field and is a good defender.
The Jason Heyward free agent market has been projected at $20 million annually for six or seven years. Heyward would be a terrific addition to any club because of his great arm and Gold Glove defense.
Although mostly a right fielder, the quick-twitch ability that Heyward displays on offense and defense leads many to believe he could play an above-average center field on a daily basis. Heyward did play center field for the Cardinals against the Cubs in the National League Division Series this year.
In house, players Javier Baez and Kris Bryant won’t be considered as viable everyday center field candidates to replace Fowler, according to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.MORE NEWS: Missing Bensenville Dog Reunited With Owners
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.