As the Cubs' leadoff hitter in 2015, Dexter Fowler's job was to set the tone for the ample young bats lined up behind him, which is why manager Joe Maddon would often turn to him at the start of a game with a simple and effective message:
"You go, we go."
Now, with Yoenis Cespedes and the rest of the top-of-the-market outfielders off the board, one of the most pressing remaining sources of curiosity in this Hot Stove season is where the switch-hitting Fowler will go.
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Did you know that over the past five seasons, just three center fielders have an on-base percentage above .365? Fowler is one, and Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen are the others.
That's pretty good company, and it's surprising to see a proven leadoff hitter coming off a sensational second half on a winning team waiting so long to find work just shy of his 30th birthday. But of course, the Draft pick compensation issue is a key one in Fowler's market. It's possible he'll sign a deal similar to the three-year, $31 million contract Denard Span got from the Giants.
Here are the five best fits for Fowler:
White Sox: You might not have paid much attention to it at the time, but it was a pretty big deal when the White Sox lost on the last day of the regular season and the Mariners won. That gave the two American League clubs identical 76-86 records, and a tiebreaker -- 2014 record -- determined which of those clubs landed the 10th pick in the 2016 Draft versus the 11th pick. Chicago had a worse record in 2014, so the 10th pick -- the last of the protected picks -- went to the South Side.
So the White Sox are in great position of being a club built (and building) to win now and not having to worry about forking over the club's first pick if they sign a free agent tied to compensation. So far, though, the Sox haven't taken advantage of this situation, because their primary offseason acquisitions -- Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie -- came aboard via trade.
But the White Sox make a tremendous amount of sense for Fowler. He wouldn't totally blow up the budget for a club that has never given out a contract higher than the six-year, $68 million pact to Jose Abreu. Fowler would only cost the Sox the sandwich pick they earned when the Giants signed Jeff Samardzija.
Yes, the White Sox currently have Adam Eaton in center, but defensive metrics are not kind to him. Among the 23 outfielders who qualified, Eaton ranked 21st in both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). In other words, Fowler (ranked 13th in UZR) would be a defensive upgrade in center, and he'd allow Eaton to play in either corner, ensuring Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia get more time at DH and Adam LaRoche, who struggled mightily, is limited to matchups that best suit him.
Angels: They need a leadoff man. They need a left fielder. They need a left-handed-hitting presence in their lineup.
Check. Check. Check. Fowler is a switch-hitter who can handle the transition to left in deference to Trout. And considering the Angels' pitchers ranked last in ground-ball rate in 2015, they can use two "center fielders" behind them.
What the Angels don't need -- or, rather, don't want -- is to go beyond the $189 million luxury tax threshold. They're already pushing right up against it. But at least Fowler's projected contract at this point wouldn't make for a major penalty -- especially not for a first-time offender getting a 17.5-percent tax. And there's a possibility the threshold will rise with the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Another thing to keep in mind here is that the Halos could potentially move some money in the form of C.J. Wilson, who is owed $20 million this year and sits very much on the trade block.
But another big wrinkle is that the Angels have the 17th pick in the Draft.
Cardinals: We can simultaneously admire the Cards' restraint in the free-agent position player market and question it. They of course made a heavy push to bring back Jason Heyward, and when that didn't pan out, John Mozeliak and Co. made the decision to trust the kids -- Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham -- and, of course, veteran Matt Holliday, who is coming off his first injury-plagued year.
Decisions made in December and January are very much subject to change, so maybe Fowler's price will drop to the point that the Cardinals, who would have to fork over the 25th overall pick to sign him, can't say no. Signing Fowler would allow them to move Matt Carpenter down to a spot where his power potential would play better. And though Fowler himself is known more as an on-base percentage guy than a power guy, his career .418 slugging percentage would be a significant improvement over what the Cards got in center field (.382) last year.
Rangers: They've been awfully quiet in the free-agent marketplace -- and for good reason. Having done some heavy lifting in Hot Stove seasons past, their budget is pretty well set. But Fowler presents a reasonably affordable opportunity to upgrade.
Right now, the Rangers are slotted for a full season of Delino DeShields, their 2014 Rule 5 Draft pickup who had a solid rookie season (.262/.344/.374 slash line), but they will have to make the inevitable sophomore adjustments. The even bigger question is in left, where Josh Hamilton resides. Hamilton has played in just 139 games over the past two years and continues to have issues with his surgically repaired left knee.
Texas added Justin Ruggiano as a platoon option. Long term, the Rangers have top prospect Nomar Mazara and maybe even Joey Gallo (a third baseman by trade who could potentially shift to the outfield corners) looming. They're not a perfect fit for Fowler on paper, but they could definitely stand to improve their outfield outlook.
Cubs: Kind of a wild card, but still a realistic one. They'd still like to add another high-upside starting pitcher to their stash, and the best way to do so at this point would be to trade right fielder Jorge Soler. Would the Cubs really punt a power bat with that much potential? One can never be certain what a win-now club is capable of, but the Cubs' first inclination, obviously, is to keep Soler and hope he becomes the middle-of-the-order masher they believe he can be. But Soler had an iffy defensive season, and though Heyward can handle the shift to center, placing him there does not take full advantage of his elite defensive capabilities in right.
So maybe, just maybe, there's a scenario where the Cubs sign Fowler and deal Soler, who has garnered plenty of interest from curious clubs. The outfield defense would be improved, as would the rotation, and the "you go, we go" mantra would be back for another go-around.
A few more to keep in mind: The Orioles could still use a corner-outfield upgrade, but they've been quite protective of their 14th overall pick, to date. ... The Astros would have to make a trade to accommodate Fowler, but they do have a history with the player -- he posted a career high OPS+ with Houston in 2014 -- and they might benefit from his OBP potential. ... The Indians certainly need outfield help, but it seems doubtful Fowler would fit in their budget. ... The Nationals made that big play for Cespedes and could pivot to Fowler. But they already added a center-field/leadoff option in Ben Revere, and it could very well be that Cespedes was a unique target for them. ... The A's are prone to late-winter surprises, so maybe they'll surprise us here.