Cubs fans have already said goodbye to Dexter Fowler once, and they undoubtedly did not anticipate not only finding themselves in a position where they would be preparing to do it again but also that it would somehow be even harder than the first time. His surprise and well-chronicled return to the Cubs in late February sparked a season-long romp that ended—just too fittingly—with a lead off home run in Game Seven of the World Series. With the season through and time to reflect on it, there’s little argument, if any, against his nearly irreplaceable value to the team. His .393 OBP from the leadoff spot and vastly improved defense in center field make his value impossible to miss. And that’s to say nothing for the smile that would have made Reagan-era Wrigley purists nervous for its illumination.
But now with the World Series finally won, the goal for the organization has to shift slightly. There’s a wide-open window to remain competitive and even take another shot at a ring, but that means allocating resources to the future and, sometimes, relying on the players already in the system to fill the void left
in our hearts on the roster by the departure of Fowler.
This isn’t to say that Fowler’s opting out of the qualifying offer extended to him on Monday means that he won’t be in a Cubs uniform in April 2017 anyway, but perhaps sadly, he probably doesn’t need to be and maybe should not be. Later this week Zack Moser will explore what the possibility of returning Fowler to the Cubs for another go-round would look like, but here, I say let him move on. And this time (through tears) we mean it.
Like the Jason Hammel decision—though not exactly the same—letting Fowler go is a look to the future. When Fowler strolled into the Cubs camp in Mesa, Arizona in February, questions turned to how Joe Maddon would find playing time for all of his outfielders, and even without Fowler on the team next season, that question hasn’t gone away, but it’s probably going to be confined to one position in the outfield, and it’s not center. This is in part because of the emergence of Albert Almora, Jr. It would hardly be fair to Almora to thrust him into the role that Fowler has carried to the tune of a collective 7.4 WARP over the past two seasons and expect him to fill it at all seamlessly, but the 22 year-old has plenty of time to prove himself.
And as Ken Schultz highlighted in his piece on Kenley Jansen today, there will have to be money to spend in the very near future if the Cubs hope to maintain this phenomenal core of very talented, and very young, offensive players. So, by not spending that cash now, they are making an investment in the future and banking on the talents of guys like Almora. That’s a reasonable investment when we consider that Almora was an above replacement level player in just 47 games (and only 117 plate appearances) in 2016.
The 2012 first rounder posted a .277/.308/.455 slash line this past season, and his .267 TAv was not too many points away from that of Addison Russell, though a definite drop off from the .312 of Fowler. The hope, of course, is that Almora will build on this glimpse of potential success in the same fashion that teammates like Russell, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant have, and Almora certainly has the pedigree for that to be a realistic vision. Though injuries slowed his 2014 season in the minor leagues, Almora has otherwise demonstrated with consistency during his career in the Cubs’ farm system that projecting him to be a steady and reliable presence in the lineup with All-Star potential isn’t far-fetched.
Along with his abilities with the bat, Almora possesses the defensive prowess to be able to man centerfield, allow Jason Heyward to remain in right, and allow the (very good) hodgepodge of Bryant/Jorge Soler/Kyle Schwarber/Willson Contreras to handle left. In his 237 innings in the outfield in 2016, Almora spent 193 of those in center, and earned his best UZR score there, though that number should be looked upon with great care, given the very, very small sample size. Establishing a player’s defensive skill takes multiple seasons, so the relative handful of innings Almora spent in the outfield in just one season should be viewed only as a glimpse. (For comparison, Fowler had about five times as many innings on defense this season as Almora had.) Almora is hardly green at this position, however; he’s logged nearly 3,000 innings in center field in his minor league career and is considered somewhere between excellent and ascendant.
This is not to say that there wouldn’t be drawbacks to simply replacing Dexter Fowler with Albert Almora, Jr. in the lineup, though that is what I’m proposing. The most notable drawback would be that while Fowler has been a natural in the lead-off spot and can hit from both sides of the plate, Almora, of course, bats only from the right side and shouldn’t be looked upon as an option for the first spot in the order—at least at first. Next season’s lineup stands otherwise to stay largely the same, but there will be a reshuffling of the batting order assuming that Fowler really does move on.
In both of his two seasons for Chicago, Fowler’s WARP was second only to his 2011 season with the Colorado Rockies (5.1 WARP), and he will be just 31 when the 2017 season begins, so there are productive years left in him. But for what those years are probably going to cost, they are best spent elsewhere.
Lead photo courtesy of David Richard—USA Today Sports