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Cubs Wed Jan 21 2015

Cubs Gain Great Flexibility and OBP in Fowler Trade

Chicago CubsThe Cubs needed a leadoff hitter. They needed someone to get on base, maybe run a little bit here and there, and most importantly, man the outfield with a history of playing some center. And if they were getting greedy, said player would be on a short contract as to not hold up prospects they like. Dexter Fowler checked every possible box.

The cost: Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. Straily was the "third" player in the deal that sent Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for Addison Russell and Billy McKinney. Straily pitched a bit at Wrigley last season, but struggled in his seven National League contests, and was among the Cubs glut of back-end starters that might not be good enough to pitch every fifth day. You could trust him for two weeks if a starter got hurt, but you didn't want to lean on him for more than that. On a great team, he's a seventh or eighth starter, and the Cubs were fine sending him out with Edwin Jackson, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Eric Jokisch all still around to fight for the final rotation and long-man spots.

Valbuena going to Houston hurts a little bit more because of the success he showed last year at the plate (and his blat flips). He was fourth on the team in OPS out of players that appeared in at least 100 games (and was just a point behind Starlin Castro), and was second on the team in walks. His plate discipline brought something to the table that only Anthony Rizzo was delivering. The problem with Valbuena is that his primary positions -- second and third base -- are scheduled to be manned by two of the Cubs top prospects in Javy Baez and Kris Bryant, with Addison Russell waiting in the wings and Arismendy Alcantara moving to the outfield. Valbuena was going to be hard-pressed for playing time, so the front office dealt from an area where they were overloaded, and turned it into a solid player.

Fowler will cost the Cubs somewhere between $8.5 and $10.8 million this season depending on whether they settle outside of court, or if the judge decides one number or the other. After 2015, he'll be a free agent. If Fowler plays well enough, the Cubs could make him a qualifying offer, and if he declines, he'd net the Cubs an extra pick in the 2016 draft by signing elsewhere. But if we're focusing on the here and now, the money is just fine. Valbuena agreed to $4.2 million late last week, and Straily would fall somewhere south of $600,000 on the season, so the Cubs have upped their payroll somewhere around $5 million for this season only.

As for what Fowler brings to the table as a player, he gets on base. His lowest full-season OBP is .347, his career rate is .366, and he's coming off his first season outside of the friendly offensive confines of Coors Field. The result: a .375 OBP. If he hits ten homers, you're happy. If he steals 15 bases, you're happy. The skill that he's hoping will garner him an eight figure contract is the one that involves seeing a lot of pitches, taking a lot of pitches, and slapping the ball around when someone throws it in the zone.

Defensively, Fowler has played every day of his MLB career in center field except for one inning patrolling right field in 2008. He's also had the pleasure of manning two of the largest outfields in professional baseball in Colorado and Houston. In 2014, he rated as one of the poorest defensive CF's in the league, and though that's far worse than he's ever performed before, he's never been thought of highly as a fielder.

The Cubs are probably OK with that because of he should bring offensively. They also might play him in left field a little bit this year to mitigate his defensive shortcomings. Though if he is going to play in center the whole year, what does that mean for Alcantara? This trade affects many on the Cubs roster, and it's probably easiest to break it down by player:

Arismendy Alcantara

He just went from every day center fielder to every day super-sub. You know the role that Ben Zobrist played for Joe Maddon and the Rays (five positions last season, seven positions total in his career)? That's exactly what Alcantara will be doing for the Cubs going forward. We know he can play shortstop, second, and center field because he already has extensively in the majors and minors. He can easily fake right or left field for a few days if needed, and probably could glove it at third without making a fool of himself. He'll likely play five out of seven days a week rotating around the field to keep other players fresh. Fowler's played more than 135 games in a season just once in the majors, and has never played 150. He'll need a caddy out there, and Alcantara at least has experience.

Chris Coghlan

If he's healthy and he hits, he'll play left field. The Cubs were impressed with what he was able to do last season, and Alcantara or Fowler can give him the occasional day off in left, while the other starts in center. If he struggles with the bat, the Cubs aren't going to hesitate putting him on the bench.

Javier Baez

It's simple for Baez as well. If he hits well, he'll have a job at second base. If he doesn't, the front office is completely fine sending him down, and either Alcantara or Tommy La Stella can jump in and take his place. Since this trade strengthens their OF depth and frees up Alcantara, you may also see Baez as trade bait if the Cubs are looking to be aggressive with an ace starter under contract for a few more years. Yes, like Cole Hamels. Alcantara was a whiz defensively at second base last year (he's a converted shortstop), so it's not out of the realm that the Cubs eventually want him back there. It would certainly lower the bar he needs to meet offensively to be an above average player.

Kris Bryant

Let's make two things clear. He's going to start out in AAA, and he's only going to be there a couple of weeks. The simple fact is that it makes financial sense for the Cubs to hold him back between 10 and 14 days to back his free agency up a full season. It doesn't hurt the team all that much, especially since La Stella and maybe Mike Olt can keep the seat warm. Bryant will play almost the entire season at Wrigley Field -- don't worry.

This trade was a brilliant one for the Cubs. Valbuena was a waiver wire snag a few years back, and Straily was a dangling piece in a trade that netted the Cubs a top three prospect in baseball, and another organizational top ten guy. Getting a player like Fowler that fits team needs perfectly, isn't expensive, and isn't committed long term is a boon for a club that wants to not only compete this year, but stay nimble in both directions. They want to acquire if things look good in July, and set up for a serious run in 2016 if they're 10 games under. A successful offseason by the front office just got that much sweeter.

 
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