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October 2, 2009

Player Profile

Dexter Fowler

by Marc Normandin

Now that the Colorado Rockies have locked up a playoff spot, it's time to turn our attention toward some of the players that they will depend upon if they want to keep playing baseball. The switch-hitting Dexter Fowler is one of these players, thanks to a rookie season that got stronger as the year went on. Today we'll take a look at what we can expect from Fowler in the future, both for the rest of 2009 and beyond.

William Dexter Fowler was selected out of high school by the Rockies back in 2004. It's somewhat odd that Fowler went the baseball route, as he was recruited to play basketball at Harvard-with his height (Fowler is 6'4") and intelligence, it was a logical choice-giving him two serious options outside of the national pastime. He was projected as a second-rounder, but because of Harvard's recruitment and his other baseball option-that of a college education and a spot on Miami's roster-he slipped and ended up going as the 410th pick in the draft. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Rockies gave him a signing bonus of almost $1 million after trading away Larry Walker and saving themselves some green.

The 14th-round pick would get his start in 2005 with the Casper Rockies at the Rookie level. He had an impressive debut, hitting .273/.357/.409 with 18 steals in 24 attempts over 220 at-bats, but it wasn't until the 2006 season was over that scouts and analysts started to drool over Fowler. Baseball America ranked him 10th in the Rockies' organization heading into the year, pointing out that his season went pretty well for a guy who just started to switch-hit that very season. His swing was long though-he struck out 73 times in just 220 at-bats, which looks even worse when you consider how little power he hit for-but there was hope that he would shorten it and fill out to add more power to his frame.

He moved up from the Rookie level to Low-A in the Sally League, and improved on almost every facet of his game. Whereas he struck out far too much in 2005 for a guy with his power, in 2006 he jumped his power up a bit (an ISO of .166, against '05's .136) and struck out 79 times in nearly twice as many chances. The one area that he had difficulty in was stealing bases: he swiped 43, but was caught 23 times. Still, there was a lot to like out of Fowler's season, as he had made some adjustments that helped him break out and put him on the prospect radar.

Baseball America ranked Fowler fourth in the organization this time around, and also put him on two of three authors' top 50 prospect lists for the entire league (albeit at 49th and 50th). They observed that he was making strides as a switch-hitter-he had a pair of homers on Opening Day, one from each side of the plate-and that his defense was well above average thanks to his excellent speed. The comp here was Devon White, as both players "seem to glide in the gaps" thanks to their "long strides". His arm was just average, but it was accurate, so it wasn't hurting him. Baseball Prospectus 2007 liked Fowler, but felt he had to prove his emerging power was for real:

Drafted for his raw athletic talents, Fowler showed an unexpectedly keen eye and an incipient power stroke both with Asheville and in the Hawaiian League. Key word: incipient. Whether that power continues to develop will determine if Fowler becomes an all-around star or a highly athletic ballhawk who makes a living with his legs.

Kevin Goldstein ranked Fowler third in the organization as a "Very Good" prospect, and 39th in the majors. He had potential for more power and to be a threat on the bases, but he also "still needs polish in nearly every aspect of the game."

High-A Modesto was Fowler's next stop, and it was somewhat of a mixed performance. He stopped attempting as many steals (going 20-for-31), his ISO dropped to .094, and he struck out more often with 64 whiffs in a shortened season. On the plus side, his patience took another step forward, as he walked in 15.2 percent of his plate appearances-those extra points of OBP can make up for lost power pretty quick, especially if you have Fowler's defensive chops. He didn't get much of a chance to show the loss of power was a small-sample fluke, as he smacked into a wall and broke a bone in his wrist.

Baseball America still liked Fowler a lot, ranking him third in the organization, but dropped him down to 74th in the overall prospect rankings. Goldstein put Fowler at fifth overall for the Rockies as a four-star prospect, citing his bat heating up prior to the injury (.349/.438/.444 in June) and the fact that many still felt his power would come in the future. That patience I mentioned above may have been going a bit too far in one direction as well, as Fowler rode "the thin line between patient and passive at times, leaving him behind in the count more often than he should be." That's not a good trait to have, especially when you're trying to find your power stroke and have issues with punching out.

Fowler was healthy in time for the Arizona Fall League, so even though the injury cut short his 2007 campaign, he was back on the field in a relatively short amount of time. He showed no ill effects from the injury once 2008 came around, with the outfielder hitting .335/.431/.515 in 505 plate appearances before earning himself a September call-up to the bigs. Fowler once again swiped 20 bases (he was caught eight times) and also cut down on his strikeouts (down to 17.6 from 21 percent in '07). Nearly doubling his ISO was a nice treat as well, and makes one think that if he had not busted his wrist the year before, we would have seen him rebound fully from his slow start.

The upshot of that great season was that Fowler was now Baseball America's top prospect for the Rockies heading into 2009, as well as Goldstein's. He was now labeled a five-star prospect:

This is one of those special players who catches your eye the moment he takes the field, and then backs it up with his performance. There's really nothing he can't do: he has a pro approach at the plate, makes consistent hard contact with gap power and projection for more, is a plus-plus runner, and he's an outstanding center fielder with a good arm. As if all of that isn't enough, you can add that he has outstanding makeup and intelligence.

There were still some issues, as no one was sure exactly of where his power would end up, and he still needed work as a basestealer-you would think someone with his speed would be picking up more than 20 thefts a year in the minors. With Willy Taveras non-tendered in December, Fowler's path to the majors was clear, despite the Rockies' off-season insistence that he spend time in Triple-A honing his craft.

Fowler ended up spending all of three games in the minors all season-so much for that honing notion-instead getting 509 plate appearances in the majors. He made headlines on April 27 with five steals in one game against San Diego-that tied a modern-day record-but for the season, he ended up with just 27 steals and didn't run all that often. Nine of those steals came in April, and another 10 in July, but outside of that, he was picking up one to three per month on just a handful of attempts.

Fowler hit very well to begin the year, and then slowed down somewhat in the middle of the season. He bounced back with a strong August, one that helped him hit .272/.374/.429 in the second half and was part of the reason the Rockies propelled themselves to the playoffs once again. The natural righty had some trouble from the left side of the plate in his first full year in the majors, hitting just .238/.357/.366 there, against .321/.378/.485 as a right-hander. He'll need to work on improving that in the future, but at just 23 years old, it's nothing to panic about just yet.

As far as evaluating his defense, the message is mixed. UZR is not a fan of his defense, with numbers that say he cost the Rockies a win on defense this year, while Plus/Minus says much the same. Even so, tere's reason to believe those numbers may be off, as these systems sometimes are. He's posted +1 FRAA, and his reputation as a defender in the minor leagues is very good, outside of his arm. As a center fielder that hits at an above-average rate, he's been very valuable to the Rockies in 2009, and if he fields well too... well, it's not like Brad Hawpe is going to catch those fly balls.

PECOTA was not surprised about his performance-his weighted-mean projection was .279/.356/.429. The thing you have to like is that his upper-level forecasts show that Fowler could potentially be an even better hitter than this. If his fielding improves further with more time in the majors, he could be a serious star-caliber player. Dreams of Fowler hitting .316/.400/.506 (his 90th percentile) with positive defensive contributions are surely in the heads of the Rockies' front office. It's possible, given his age and the fact PECOTA sees plenty of room for improvement on his base projection over the next few years. For now, he's useful at both the plate and in the field, and the Rockies will need him to perform in both areas over the next few weeks if they want to stick around.

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