Joe Maddon kept telling Dexter Fowler: You go, we go. And the Cubs went all the way to the National League Championship Series. But after a sensational walk year for the leadoff guy, it could be looking more like: He gone.
Fowler will cash in somewhere as a free agent, and if the Cubs have to choose between investing in center field or pitching, that money will probably be transferred into the rotation.
Even during a subpar first half, the Cubs planned to give Fowler the $15.8 million qualifying offer, knowing they would either get a good one-year solution or the draft pick. And then Fowler caught fire after the All-Star break, getting on base almost 39 percent of the time and finishing with 102 runs scored, 17 homers and 20 stolen bases.
“I believe God has a process,” Fowler said. “At the end of the day, if this is where I need to be, this is where I need to be.”
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn’t rule out a return during Thursday’s state-of-the-team address at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs also know an athletic player with on-base skills will get paid this winter.
“Dexter Fowler had an unbelievable year,” Epstein said. “He fit in tremendously well in this organization. I think really highly of him as a player and as a person.
“He’s a free agent. He’s earned that status. It’s not something I take lightly. Players rarely have the ability to go out and see what their market is and what teams are interested in them.
“We’ll see what the future holds. But certainly there’s an interest in sitting down at the appropriate time with Dexter and his agent, Casey Close, and seeing if there’s a way to keep him as a Chicago Cub.”
If healthy, the Cubs see Denard Span as another possible option for center field in 2016. Injuries limited Span to only 61 games, and the Washington Nationals missed his presence during a massively disappointing year. Span, who hit .301 with a .796 OPS, will be 32 next season and would probably be a defensive upgrade.
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Maddon’s mix-and-match philosophy means the Cubs could move Kris Bryant from third base to the outfield, but it’s hard to see center being his permanent home.
There are too many injury risks – collisions with the wall and teammates – for a premium power hitter with superstar potential. Bryant hasn’t fully developed all those defensive instincts yet – the sense for speed and angles and positioning – and ideally would prefer to play third base.
After watching Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler misread too many balls hit by the New York Mets during that NLCS sweep, the Cubs see outfield defense as a glaring area for improvement.
After watching Schwarber and Bryant rocket through the farm system, the Cubs also need to remind themselves to be patient and remember how long this process usually takes with prospects.
Albert Almora – a strong defender and the first player drafted by the Epstein administration in 2012 – won’t be ready to play center field on Opening Day 2016.
Almora didn’t have an exceptional wire-to-wire season at Double-A Tennessee, but he’s still only 21 and seemed to hear the wake-up call as other players debuted and made their marks at Wrigley Field. Almora hit .301 with an .834 OPS in the second half for the Smokies, though that surge and first-round pedigree could make him an interesting trade chip this winter.
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Fowler and Epstein said all the right things publicly, but the Cubs are probably looking for a free agent or a trade target to help bridge the next two seasons in center field.
Given the franchise’s wave of young talent, we’ll see how many years the Cubs are willing to go for someone who will be 30 next season. And Fowler will never be in a better position to maximize his earning potential.
“This is a great organization,” Fowler said. “Awesome city. And the fans were awesome. This is Wrigley Field. Not a better place to play.”