“All right, Rian, the piece is ready to be edited!”
“What the hell is going on?”
(Cubs Twitter burns down)
Before Thursday’s eruption of news and confusion and eventual clarity, I had written a fine collection of this week’s happenings from Cubs’ camp. Well, that piece immediately became obsolete: Dexter Fowler is returning to the Chicago Cubs, months after turning down the club’s qualifying offer, with a guarantee of at least $13 million.
Let’s take a look at how it all went down.
Rumors had flown early in the offseason, around the time of the Jason Heyward signing, that the Cubs would trade Jorge Soler for cost-controlled pitching with upside. As the offseason wore on, it became clear that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and co. were comfortable rolling with all of Soler, Coghlan, Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber as the team’s primary outfielders.
Not long after I had filed the first version of this Catchup, news broke that Chris Coghlan was heading west to the Oakland A’s for right-hander Aaron Brooks. In a vacuum, this move made little sense. Coghlan had earned his spot on the roster with strong 2014 and 2015 performances, remaking himself into a high on-base, moderate power player, with passable outfield defense. At this very site, we profiled him several times, capturing the yeoman-like dedication Coghlan had for his hitting craft, as he transfigured himself from the high-contact, low-power Rookie of the Year for the Marlins in 2009 to an important piece on an NLCS-appearing Cubs team. Through personal struggles (Coghlan lost his father in a car accident while he was in high school) and the disappointment of being cast off that Marlins team for which he briefly succeeded, he had persevered.
By the end of the 2015 season, however, the youngsters arriving in Chicago had supplanted Coghlan as outfield starters, making Coghlan’s presence on the roster a luxury for the Cubs. Granted, they could afford that luxury. Which made the trade for Brooks even more puzzling: why would a team with the resources of the Cubs, looking to build a juggernaut for 2016, trade a key bench piece for a starter who posted a 6.29 DRA for two different clubs this past season?
The other shoe had to drop. A look at Cubs Twitter at the moment that the Coghlan news broke revealed frustration and confusion.
There had better be another shoe dropping, because this is a pointless, miserable trade for Chicago in isolation. Brutal. Stupid.
— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) February 25, 2016
So that makes now many relievers for what, maybe one spot in the bullpen?
— Jared Wyllys (@jwyllys) February 25, 2016
Can't help but wonder if there's a corresponding move here. Don't understand the move yet in isolation, unless they really like Brooks.
— Rian Watt (@rianwatt) February 25, 2016
Aaron Brooks' player comment in the annual (which I happen to have open in front of me) doesn't have me convinced that this was a good move.
— Cat Garcia (@TheBaseballGirl) February 25, 2016
The outfield depth of a meticulously constructed roster now had a glaring hole in it. All of a sudden, the Cubs’ options at the back end of the Opening Day roster looked grim. Some speculated that Austin Jackson’s return to the club would be the corresponding move, as Jackson’s defense would be a significant upgrade from Coghlan. Ultimately, there was a somber tone paired with the frustration of the move: Coghlan had grown to love Chicago, and was one of the leaders in a clubhouse full of leaders.
I've been fine with all the moves so far this offseason, even Castro. But this one is making me sad. For irrational, human reasons.
— Cat Garcia (@TheBaseballGirl) February 25, 2016
And then, that corresponding move came. And, oh boy, was it a doozy. On Tuesday, reports circulated that Dexter Fowler had signed a three-year, $35 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles, filling an outfield need for that club and leaving several other clubs (especially the White Sox) without a solution to their own outfield woes for 2016. It was the culmination of a disheartening offseason for Fowler, who had rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs with the hopes of landing a multi-year deal with more money guaranteed.
Following the Cubs’ signing of Heyward, most relinquished hope of the jovial center fielder coming back. Some—including this author—let a flicker of that hope remain, lusting after a five-headed monster outfield of Heyward-Fowler-Soler-Schwarber-Coghlan.
That outfield won’t be happening, but not in the way anyone expected. Even the most esteemed writers of the Cubs’ online community were dumbstruck.
Holy crap. Dexter Fowler walks on the field. He's back. With the Cubs. Seriously.
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) February 25, 2016
One of coolest things I have seen. Players gathered suddenly on Field 6 and Fowler appears. Huge roar from the players.
— John Arguello (@CubsDen) February 25, 2016
Fowler had returned, and the Cubs’ front office had paired a disappointing move with a move that not only strengthened the club, but also sent the Cubs and their fans into a state of euphoria. The sadness brought on by the human element of the Coghlan departure was quelled somewhat by the return of one of 2015’s most fun Cubs. Reactions pivoted towards a celebration of Fowler’s great moments with last year’s club, and immediately fans began gushing over the possibilities of different lineups, matchups, and defensive alignments.
The dark horse signing was even a surprise to some Cubs. Video quickly surfaced of Cubs’ camp in Mesa, where the team had gathered on Field 6 for the entrance of a surprise guest. Jason Hammel thought it might be a redux of the zoo animals from last season, a hallmark of Joe Maddon’s zany tactics to keep players loose and practice enjoyable. They had a bit more in store.
— Ryan McGuffey (@RyanMcGuffey) February 25, 2016
Upon greeting the outfielder, David Ross reportedly told him congratulations on his deal with the Orioles. Some thought the well-liked Fowler was merely saying goodbye before reporting to Orioles’ camp. But, in the press conference, Fowler told reporters that his agent and Epstein had “been engaged the whole offseason,” perhaps an unsurprising reveal, considering public knowledge of the mutual love between the Cubs organization and Fowler. He also sheepishly confirmed that he turned down that three-year guarantee from Baltimore, stating, “My heart’s here. I feel that the Cubs treat me with utmost respect, and with the offseason moves they made, you’ve got to go with what’s comfortable.” Chicago is a comfortable home for Fowler, and he made an unprecedented choice to reveal his signing to the club with his appearance at the training fields. It was a delightfully human moment.
So soak it in, Cubs fans. Fowler is back, his infectious grin in tow, and the 2016 Cubs are complete. There’s going to be an unprecedented degree of versatility with this roster, especially in the outfield. Upon the Heyward and Zobrist signings, I wrote about the importance of that versatility for the 2016 Cubs, and they’ve now built upon their “strong present” even further by re-signing Fowler.
Remember Coghlan for what he is: a hardworking, team-oriented man who succeeded when afforded the opportunity on an ascendant Cubs club. And remember Fowler for what he was, because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him at the top of that beastly Cubs lineup, come April. Chances are, he’ll be there come October, too.
Welcome back, Dex.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports