Dexter Fowler has been a huge part of the Cubs second-half surge this season, making Theo Epstein and the front office look like absolute geniuses for trading Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to the Houston Astros in the offseason. But with the 29-year-old Fowler about to hit free agency in just over a month, the question has become whether the Cubs should simply give him a qualifying offer or actually pony up the money to pay him.
Fowler struggled early this season, but since July 6th he’s hit .290/.410/.504 with nine home runs in 271 plate appearances. It should come as no surprise that in the same stretch their leadoff man has posted an OPS of .914, the Cubs have gone 38-22. He’s set career highs in walks, home runs, and total bases, and has put up a 3.4 WARP while playing a passable center field.
So when the bell tolls and the Cubs need to make a decision about what to do with Fowler, what should we expect? To better understand what they may do, we first need to better understand what Fowler may be looking for on the open market.
The first comparison I will bring out is Michael Bourn, who signed a four-year, $47 million contract with the Cleveland Indians just prior to the 2013 season. Bourn was 30 years old at the time, which is the same age Fowler will be next season, and was viewed around the game much like Fowler is now. He was a leadoff hitter who gets on base and can play a passable center field, although those days are long behind Bourn.
Of course, there are plenty of ways that Bourn and Fowler are dissimilar. Fowler has the ability to hit with power, which Bourn has never done. Fowler is an average base-stealing threat, while Bourn was coming off a season in which he stole 42 bags when he signed his big contract. Bourn posted an OPS+ of 99 in 2012 while Fowler currently sits at 113 this season with the Cubs.
The next comparison I have is probably much closer in actual skill than Bourn, and that’s Nick Markakis. The former Orioles’ right fielder signed with the Atlanta Braves last offseason on a four-year, $44 million deal. His three seasons prior to becoming a free agent stack up favorably against Fowler over the three seasons prior to his free agency (with 20 games to go in 2015):
Markakis is about a year older than Fowler, received nearly 300 more plate appearances, and had a lower WARP, OBP, and SLG. Markakis has never been anything more than a corner outfielder on defense, and although Fowler probably should be a corner outfielder going forward as well, his resume includes playing center field on an everyday basis. No comparison is perfect, and it’s important to note that we’re looking at dollars offered and not “exact comparison.” For our purposes, these two players will make a solid template for figuring out what Fowler’s market value should look like.
This would be the time to mention that, just like real world economics, inflation matters when comparing any past dollar amount. Since 2008, when the average salary in major-league baseball was $2.8 million according to the MLBPA, the average rate of inflation has been around 7.1 percent per season, bringing us to the nearly $4.25 million average salary that we currently have in 2015.
So while the four-year, $47 million contract Bourn was given in 2013 looks extremely similar to the four-year, $44 million contract that was given to Markakis prior to 2015, it’s a bit misleading. When you consider the two years of inflation, the Bourn contract was actually more like $53.8 million over four years in 2015 dollars. Assuming another 7.1 percent inflation, that contract would be $57.6 million over four seasons in 2016 dollars. The Markakis contract, with just the one year of inflation going into the 2016 season, comes out at around four years, $47 million.
We also have to consider that Fowler, by most measures, is a better ballplayer than both Bourn and Markakis at the time that they signed their contracts. That means that he’s likely to be around, or maybe just north of, the contract value that was given to Bourn. That means the market value for Dexter Fowler is going to be around four years for $60-65 million. At an average annual value of $15-16 million, I think it’s worth considering bringing Fowler back.
A few things here: if the Cubs were to offer Fowler a four-year, $65 million contract, they would only be adding $6.75 million onto their current payroll. While that is a significant dollar amount, and it’s certainly a large commitment, the change in payroll is nowhere near as great when you realize that the Cubs are already paying Fowler $9.5 million in his final year of arbitration.
If the Cubs make a qualifying offer to Fowler, they’re committing to potentially paying Fowler around $16 million in 2016 anyway (the qualifying offer paid $15.3 million in 2015, which is calculated as the average of the top 125 salaries in MLB). If he declines the QO, the Cubs earn a compensatory draft pick if Fowler signs elsewhere. That sounds good in theory, but we know this can end poorly for the player.
Any team that ends up outside the top 10 in next year’s draft won’t be protected from having to surrender their first-round pick to the Cubs, and this could extremely negatively impact Fowler’s market (see Drew, Stephen and Morales, Kendrys). Fowler is a very good player, but as he ages his stolen bases will disappear and he will absolutely need to move to a corner outfield spot. Teams are going to be asking themselves the question: Is Dexter Fowler worth giving up a first-round draft pick?
It’s entirely possible that Fowler’s agent already has a decent handle on the answer to that question, and if it comes down to accepting the one-year, $16 million QO or risk ending up like Drew or Morales, Fowler might be wise to just accept the QO.
So it might be best for both parties to simply sit down after the season and hammer out a deal that both think is fair. Maybe, considering the dearth of hitting talent that is available these days, that is a four-year, $65 million deal. The effect on the payroll isn’t as large as the number makes it sound, and the complications of offering a qualifying offer to Fowler could end up not being worth the hassle for either side.
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