As expected, the Cubs made Dexter Fowler a qualifying offer by Friday’s deadline, though there’s a strong sense the leadoff guy will get paid somewhere else, with Theo Epstein’s front office taking the draft pick as compensation and exploring other center-field options.
Both sides got exactly what they wanted out of this arranged marriage, which the Cubs set up when they acquired Fowler from the Houston Astros last January. An outstanding platform season for a playoff team means Fowler will do exponentially better than the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer.
The Cubs took off when Fowler found another gear in the second half, getting on base almost 39 percent of the time and finishing with 17 homers and 102 runs scored. The Cubs wouldn’t win 97 games and two playoff rounds without Fowler as an offensive spark.
But signing Fowler would mean buying high on an outfielder who played around 118 games on average during the 2013 and 2014 seasons (though he will only be 30 next year). And the Cubs could probably find a defensive upgrade in center field, where Fowler didn’t grade out exceptionally well in terms of the metrics or the eye test.
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Still, the Cubs plan to speak with Fowler’s high-powered agent, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management. The Cubs will also be in listening mode and open to other ideas when the general manager meetings begin next week in Boca Raton, Florida.
“We had a great year with Dexter,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really enjoyed getting to know him. He was the catalyst for our offense and played good defense. (He) was good in the clubhouse.
“We’ll definitely sit down with Casey in the near future.”
The Washington Nationals did not give the qualifying offer to Denard Span – a player the Cubs discussed last offseason before making the Fowler deal – and that development should make him an even more attractive buy-low candidate without the attached draft pick.
Span would have to answer questions about his health after a series of injuries limited him to only 61 games with an underachieving Washington team. But he still managed to hit .301 with a .796 OPS this year. He’s a left-handed hitter with a .352 career on-base percentage who stole 31 bases for a 96-win team in 2014 and checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs.
The Cubs viewed Austin Jackson as only a rental player when they acquired him from the Seattle Mariners at the Aug. 31 deadline, which would appear to cross him off the list.
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Whether it’s following the Fowler blueprint and putting together another trade, or signing a free agent with on-base/contact skills and defensive upside, the Cubs will likely try to buy some time until 2017 or 2018 with a short-term solution.
Maybe everything clicks for someone like Albert Almora or Billy McKinney at Triple-A Iowa next year, or the Cubs get a better feel for where their versatile young players fit defensively.
Kris Bryant has some outfield experience and an unselfish attitude, but the All-Star third baseman would prefer to stay in the infield. The Cubs have kicked around the idea of Bryant in center, but they don’t see that as a realistic option for a 162-game season.
If anything, Javier Baez profiles better than Bryant in center field, but manager Joe Maddon isn’t in a rush to move such a talented middle infielder at this point.
In the end, if the Cubs have to choose between investing in their rotation or center field this winter, that’s really not a difficult decision at all for a franchise loaded with young hitters and lacking in frontline pitchers.