One of the great mysteries of the Cubs Convention was the whereabouts of Luis Valbuena. As we found out this morning, he, along with pitcher Dan Straily, were traded to the Houston Astros for outfielder Dexter Fowler. While the cost to acquire Fowler is admittedly high, sending Luis Valbuena to Houston starts to bring clarity to the make-up of the 2015 Cubs line-up.
Right off the bat, Fowler answers the question about who the lead-off hitter is going to be. At the convention, Joe Maddon described his ideal lead-off hitter as someone who would work counts, see a number of pitches, and have a high on-base percentage. Fowler is that guy. Last season, Fowler tied for 14th in the majors in pitches per plate appearance, with 4.13 and has a career average of 4.05 pitches per plate appearance. In that regard, he readily replaces the 4.17 pitches per plate appearances from Luis Valbuena. Coupled with all of those pitches seen is a career on-base percentage of .366 and a career 12.5% walk rate. Without question, Fowler answers who will lead-off. He is, in that case, an ideal fit.
An underrated aspect about Fowler is that he is a switch hitter who is good from both sides of the plate. As a left-handed hitter, he has a career .259/.356/.414 slash line and as a right-handed hitter, he posts a career .299/.391/.433 line. He makes more contact as a righty, with a noticeably lower strike out rate from that side of the plate (16.9% vs 24.4%), but his walk rate is high from both sides of the plate, driving very good on-base percentages consistently. If there is any place to criticize Fowler offensively, it is as a base stealing threat. 94 career stolen bases, at a success rate of just under 68%, is far below what you’d expect from an athlete of Fowler’s caliber.
Moving Luis Valbuena also answers some questions about the make-up of the Cubs infield. At the outset of the season, third base will most likely be manned by some combination of Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt while Kris Bryant gets the last little bit of “seasoning” in Iowa. And that is the right move. As we saw last night, with Max Scherzer, Scott Boras gets every last dime he can for his clients. Ensuring an extra year of control for Bryant in his prime in exchange for three weeks of this rookie season is a no-brainer. Because of this, Mike Olt has every opportunity to stake a claim to the position by getting off to a fast start. If that happens, he could drive Kris Bryant to left field. That is a “best case” scenario for the Cubs, though. The most likely outcome is that Kris Bryant gets called up toward the end of April and becomes the every day third baseman. That leaves an infield likely comprised of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Starlin Castro.
One question the acquisition of Dexter Fowler does not answer is how the outfield will be comprised. Over the course of his time with the Rockies and last season with the Astros, Fowler has primarily played center field. During that same time frame, though, Fowler has only posted one full season with a positive dWAR, 0.4 in 2010. Much like his difficulty stealing bases, this is a bit out of place with the athletic ability of someone like Fowler. One of the potential issues with his defense that Fowler is leaving behind is the constant play in very large outfields. Coors Field and Minute Maid Park are both massive. Last season, Fowler manned a center field that was 435′ to dead center…with a hill and a flag pole in play. That was even bigger than Coors’ 415′ dead center dimension. Wrigley Field is considerably smaller, at 400′ to center with smaller (and easier to navigate) gaps than both Coors Field and Minute Maid Park. In that sense, Fowler’s speed and his arm will certainly play up in the Friendly Confines more so than they did in either of his previous homes.
One option available to Joe Maddon is to play Fowler in left field with Arismendy Alcantara in center field. That scenario would give the Cubs an ultra-athletic outfield with Fowler, Alcantara, and Jorge Soler from left to right, with veterans Chris Coghlan and Chris Denorfia serving in reserve capacities. More likely, however, is Soler in right, Fowler in center field, and the platoon of Coghlan and Denorfia in left field, with Alcantara serving in the role of super-utility player, as he has the ability to play all over the field.
Adding Dexter Fowler does add a few degrees of clarity to how 2015 will look for the Cubs. At the outset of the season, they could feature a line-up that looks something like this:
1. Dexter Fowler – CF
2. Starlin Castro – SS
3. Anthony Rizzo – 1B
4. Jorge Soler – RF
5. Miguel Montero – C
6. Javier Baez – 2B
7. Chris Coghlan/ Chris Denorfia – LF
8. Mike Olt/ Tommy La Stella – 3B
With the arrival of Kris Bryant, that line-up construction would most certainly change. If Bryant is as advertised, though, he would make the line-up much more impactful in the middle and giving it a large boost of depth. Because Bryant will not be in the minors long, a line-up with him would likely look something like…
Moving Jorge Soler into the second spot in the line-up moves his ability to work at-bats into a spot right behind Dexter Fowler, giving the Cubs three hitters at the top of their line-up who are all patient and make pitchers work. In that event, even if the Cubs were to go quietly in the first inning, with all three being retired, it should reduce the number of six or seven pitch first innings that have become an all too frequent occurrence the last few seasons.
With Spring Training around the corner, Dexter Fowler appears to be the final major piece of the puzzle for the upcoming season. Although Joe Maddon said that it was too early to discuss line-up construction at this point in time, it appears that the line-up is starting to take shape. Filling the last significant hole in the line-up for this season with a veteran lead-off hitter should help what was a weak offense in 2014, save for Castro and Rizzo. And while the cost to acquire this piece was great, it was a necessary for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to make this move…both for a valuable piece in the line-up and to provide some clarity in how the roster should look on Opening Day and shortly thereafter.