What could Dexter Fowler possibly do for an encore here? The Cubs already got two of the best years of his life, winning 200 games and five playoff rounds combined while watching him develop into an All-Star for the first time.
Fowler set the tone for an epic Game 7 against Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians, backpedaling between first and second base after launching the Cy Young Award winner’s sinker 406 feet over the center-field wall for the 22nd leadoff homer in World Series history.
Fowler did it again when he stepped to the microphone during that massive Grant Park rally after an unforgettable championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.
“You know what they say, they say: ‘You go, we go,’ so I’m going,” Fowler said with a fake laugh. “Thank you Cubs fans for coming out. You all are the best in the world. Thank you for having me. You all are like family. You all are extended family to me. And I love you all forever.”
Fowler settled all the family business in Chicago, making a surprise return in spring training and helping the Cubs win their first World Series title in 108 years. Fowler is betting on himself again, declining a $17.2 million qualifying offer by Monday’s deadline and expecting to cash in with a big multi-year deal.
“Dexter had an amazing year for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during last week’s GM meetings in Arizona. “He’s going to have a lot of suitors – as he should after a year like that – so we’ll be in touch with (his agent) Casey Close and with Dexter. We’d love to have him back.
“Whether or not that can happen – we’re not sure. We do have internal options there – good ones – but we’ll also probably look externally as well.”
The Cubs shocked the baseball world when Fowler showed up at their Mesa complex in late February for a $13 million guarantee – days after he had reportedly agreed to a three-year, $35 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles.
The draft-pick compensation system – which may be overhauled with a new collective bargaining agreement – had a chilling effect on Fowler’s market. So did questions about his defense in center field, where he improved in terms of advanced metrics by simply playing deeper.
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But the Cubs believe Albert Almora Jr. can be a Gold Glove defender and may look for a veteran left-handed hitter to platoon with and help mentor the first player Theo Epstein’s regime drafted here in 2012.
Matt Szczur’s primary playoff contribution became lending one of his Marucci bats to Anthony Rizzo, but he’s an ideal role player who can move all over the outfield. The Cubs also signed Jason Heyward last winter with the idea that the Gold Glove outfielder would spend some time in center at the beginning of that $184 million deal.
“We feel great about Almora,” Hoyer said. “We feel really good about Szczur. Heyward can play center field, so we have the ability to fill that spot.
“We’re going to look. We were prepared to go into last season without Dexter. We were fortunate he came back. We’ll have those discussions with Casey. Thankfully, (Dexter) was a Cub in 2016. It was a great thing for us. But we do have the ability to fill that hole if we need to.”
So while the Cubs would initially miss Fowler’s .366 career on-base percentage and switch-hitting presence at the top of their order, they can make a defensive upgrade in center field while also getting an offensive boost from Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras, two catchers who can move to the outfield and still haven’t spent a full season in The Show yet.
Plus, the lineup is already stacked with the leading MVP candidate (Kris Bryant), a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman (Rizzo), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) and an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell). Javier Baez – who will turn 24 on Dec. 1 – became one of the breakout stars of this postseason. Even Heyward should feel more comfortable in Year 2 and ready for an offensive uptick after posting career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631).
“The one nice thing for us is we have that young position-playing group that makes the offensive part of the game pretty stable for us going into next year,” Hoyer said.
Only two players – Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker – accepted qualifying offers and the $17.2 million guaranteed. Fowler is part of the group – along with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Mark Trumbo, Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen – that is thinking bigger and will test the free-agent market.
“No matter what happens, I’ll always respect so much the fact that he felt like we had unfinished business,” Hoyer said. “He wanted to be part of this team. He took a discount to do it. And it’s always nice to see a guy bet on himself. He was willing to make a huge bet on himself. And he won that bet.”