Dexter Fowler and the Cubs’ Perpetual Center Field Search

The vacancy at third base that lasted for three decades is now a part of Cubs lore. Ron Santo was a Hall of Fame player on a beloved Cubs team that fell just short, and he was traded away to the crosstown White Sox to finish off his career after the 1973 season. The search for Santo’s replacement, on the other hand, might have parallel in the city only with the Bears’ search for a quarterback. The list of Cubs third basemen after Santo, and prior to Aramis Ramirez’s arrival, certainly isn’t an inspiring list.

Concerns about replacing Ramirez are nonexistent right now, with Kris Bryant destroying any notions of a looming sophomore slump. Bryant may have filled that potential void, but another player has been providing production from a position that has been far more difficult to fill in Cubs history: Dexter Fowler’s surprising season highlights just how hard it has been for the Chicago Cubs to find good centerfielders.

All Star Games are hardly a definitive measure of quality, but it is telling that the last two Cubs players to make the All-Star Game while playing a majority of games at center field were Marlon Byrd in 2010 and Andy Pafko in 1950. Dexter Fowler is currently leading the fan vote for NL outfielders, and if he makes it as a starter he will be the first Cub center fielder to start an All-Star Game since Augie Galan in 1936 (note that Kosuke Fukudome, Sammy Sosa, Andre Dawson (twice), and Frank Demaree all started an All-Star Game in center field but none played a majority of games in center field those years).

1950 marks a good cutoff point for this discussion. Pafko was the last Cub center fielder to make more than one All-Star Game, and he is easily the team’s best centerfielder since Hack Wilson, the Cubs’ lone Hall of Famer at the position, unless you want to count one season of Richie Ashburn. Pafko was traded during the 1951 season. 1950 is also the start of TAv and WARP data at Baseball Prospectus. Here are the career leaders in WARP among Cub centerfielders since 1950.

Cubs Center Fielder Cubs Career WARP in CF
Rick Monday 12.8
Adolfo Phillips 11.0
Dexter Fowler 5.9
Marlon Byrd 5.9
Andy Pafko 5.8
Brian McRae 5.2

 That is the total list of Cubs center fielders that have accumulated more than five wins above replacement in the past 66 years of Cubs baseball. Two of those six players (Pafko and Fowler) did that in less than a season and a half of games. The other notable point is how Rick Monday has been the best Cubs centerfielder of the past 60 years, and it is not particularly close. Adolfo Phillips had a great season in 1967 (the best season ever by a Cubs centerfielder according to WARP) that accounted for over half of his 11 career WARP. Monday, on the other hand, is still best known for his saving an American flag on the field 40 years ago. Or perhaps for being the first ever amateur free agent draft pick by the Kansas City Athletics. Either way, his status as a very good baseball player has been overshadowed by some singular moments in baseball history.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that there is no talk about the 40 years the Cubs have spent looking and mostly failing to find a replacement for him. Monday was nowhere near the player that Santo was, and he played on teams that were far less iconic in Cubs history. Also, Monday was perhaps under-appreciated in his own time. He never made the All-Star Game as a Cub, and only in 1976, when he hit 30 home runs, did he receive any award votes. All this despite the fact that he is the only Cub center fielder to hit above .280 TAv in more than three seasons—he did it all five years in which he wore a Cub uniform. 

1972 .284 1.92
1973 .297 3.19
1974 .297 1.18
1975 .281 1.68
1976 .306 4.76

The surprise return and performance this year by Fowler has given him a chance to enter rare territory among Cubs centerfielders. Fowler hit .281 TAv his first season while piling up the second-highest WARP total in his career at 3.7. This year he is hitting for a staggering .321 TAv, and has already accumulated 2.2 WARP. Only Adolfo Phillips and Monday have hit above .280 TAv in back-to-back years, and only Phillips and Brian MacRae have posted back to back WARP totals over two.

Dexter Fowler is projected to end the season with a .292 TAv and 3.2 WARP. That will solidify his position as the best Cubs centerfielder since Monday, and puts the Cubs in a tough position, as he is sure to use his opt out clause to take advantage of a weak free agent market. The Cubs have numerous players that are capable of playing center field, including, now, Albert Almora, Jr.. He has tantalized with a glove that has been as advertised, and has also hit enough to allow us to dream upon him as the next young player to make an impact. Still, there are obvious concerns in his offensive profile.

Other options? Jason Heyward is at the very least a capable center fielder. As Cat Garcia wrote last week, there is little reason to panic about Heyward despite his terrible struggles at the plate so far in a Cubs uniform. The real question about moving Heyward in the middle is the pressure it puts on Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Almora, and others to produce right away. The Cubs certainly have options, and perhaps that depth is enough to withstand the loss of Fowler. Gambling that the young Cubs can carry the load at such a young age or coming off of injury might be something the Cubs have to do.

That is because Fowler should command a significant raise from the offer the Orioles made to him in the offseason of 3 years and 35 million. The Cubs might not be in a position to make that offer despite the need for dependable production at the top of the lineup. The Cubs will have to pay a significant raise to staff ace Jake Arrieta who may challenge the arbitration record this coming offseason. Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Jason Hammel if retained all command significant raises down the line. There is money coming off the books as well, but the Cubs will have to decide where to invest their limited resources. Fowler’s 90th percentile outcomes according to PECOTA at the start of the year was a .295 TAv and 3.4 WARP, and he is projected to produce just a hair under those 90th percentile outcomes this year. That has certainly been good fortune for both the Cubs and Fowler, but the front office will have to decide if it is wise to invest in a 31 year old continuing to produce at that level.

Instead it seems likely that Fowler will get paid elsewhere. The Cubs should be able to absorb the loss in the lineup and in the field, but the search for Monday’s replacement will go on for at least another few years.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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