Determining Fowler’s Value as Free Agency Looms

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.

Lead photo courtesy of Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

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9 comments on “Determining Fowler’s Value as Free Agency Looms”


Good article, Ryan. Important to note that the Cubs have significant payroll flexibility in the coming years, and are currently just under league average for payroll.
Assuming this year’s run boosts revenues, there should be incrementally more cash to play with than planned as renovations continue on profit centers.
Next year, the Cubs have only $82 million committed (to only 10 players). Assuming the budget is the same as this year’s at a minimum, and assuming $25 million for a front line pitcher, they should have another $20-$25 million to use to fill out the roster without significantly increasing payroll.
The years on Fowler scare me more than the AAV. I think I would rather see them extend a QO and see what happens.

Ryan Davis

The years on Fowler are a concern, but I think his skills that the Cubs will care about will age well. It’s important to understand that if they sign him, it means getting a corner outfielder that gets on base, hits for decent power, and can lead off. If Albert Almora is ready and looks like a major league center fielder in say, 2016, then you look at possibly trading from a position of strength or even platooning Schwarber and Fowler in LF a bit while Schwarber also catches several days a week and sits against tough lefties.

Carlos Portocarrero

It’s also worth noting that both those contracts (Markakis and Bourn) aren’t looking so good for each team. Bourn is a shell of his former self and Markakis seems to have lost all his power. He’s hitting .290 and getting on base, but that’s about all he can do. Scary to commit that kind of money when looking at how that turned out.

Although I do think Fowler is a much better player than either of those two guys.

Ryan Davis

I agree on the Bourn contract, but I think Fowlers skills age well. His high OBP and good power will play at a corner spot. Also, I disagree on the Markakis contract (at this point). He hits and gets on base and plays a decent RF. If he hadn’t signed that contract with a team that was about to take a huge dive, the perception would be better. If he had signed with the Mets, for example, and was batting leadoff and playing LF/RF for them, the 3/$33m remaining would look different. I think it’s worth discussing a contract with Fowler, especially if the payroll continues to rise. If it’s anything more than four years, then I start to waver a bit on it.

Steve Davis

The question becomes if you can only sign either Fowler or a starting pitcher, which do you prioritize? My guess is the starting pitcher.

Ryan Davis

I really hope they aren’t in a position where it’s either resign Fowler or sign a starting pitcher. Because honestly, they need two starting pitchers this offseason.


I know nothing about how Bourn and Markakis approached the game, but Fowler’s offseason work with Barry Bonds has shown a guy who is willing to keep working to improve his skillset, something that has shown up this year with the various career highs mentioned in the article. As long as Fowler continues down that path, I see no reason why the Cubs wouldn’t jump at a 4-year, $60 million deal.

jan labij

From what I’ve seen of
Dexter Fowler, he’s more than a adequete center fielder. Although his batting average is not that great, his OBP is. He also is a valuable guy to have in the clubhouse. Best center fielder we’ve had around here in a while.

Ryan Davis

Thanks for the comment Jan, and I agree that he’s the best player the Cubs have had in center in quite a while. The only thing I will disagree with you on is his defense. While he certainly doesn’t make a lot of errors or mental mistakes, his overall defense is lacking and whatever team he plays for next season would be better off with him at a corner spot and a better defensive player in center field.

The best thing I can point to is defensive runs saved (DRS), which is a stat Fangraphs uses. Their baseline scale states that a player that has -15 DRS for a season is an “awful” defender, and a 0 DRS is “average”. Fowler had a -20 DRS in center field last year, and so far this season has a -11 DRS.

He definitely is a good guy in the clubhouse, from what I’ve seen and heard. He’s a very good bat to have, considering the OBP and power that he gives you and the fact that he can switch-hit. If the Cubs can find a way to strike a deal with him before the qualifying offers need to be submitted, that would be ideal.

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