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When the Astros acquired Evan Gattis last week it was unclear where exactly he’d end up playing in a crowded Astros outfield, but there was plenty of speculation that another trade was coming to free up space. Moving Fowler made sense because of his subpar defense in center; the organization seems eager to shift George Springer into that position and open a spot in right for Jake Marisnick, who also has the ability to play center.
The Astros accomplished their goal of adding major-league assets in Valbuena and Straily, while losing Fowler and potentially costing themselves a chance at a draft pick if Fowler plays well enough to garner a qualifying offer at the end of this season. General manager Jeff Luhnow pretty much admitted that extending Fowler didn’t seem like a realistic possibility.
The addition of Straily is mainly a depth move, with Luhnow saying as much:
“We’ve got (Brett) Oberholtzer, we’ve got (Brad) Peacock, we’ve got Wojo (Asher Wojciechowski) and Alex White. There’s a lot of names,” Luhnow said. “If he’s not in our rotation, he might be in our bullpen, or he would give us much needed starting pitching depth at Triple A. We certainly believe that he’s going to be a good major-league starting pitcher. Whether that’s right out of spring with us or down the road remains to be seen.”
Just last year Straily looked like a pitcher with staying power. Previously a pop-up prospect, he posted numbers comparable to Jarrod Parker’s, a more decorated arm of the same age. This spring, with Parker out for the season, Straily took on great importance in the A's rotation. Yet he failed to rise to the occasion. Straily had struggled with home runs in 2012, his introduction to the majors, and those problems returned in 2014. Wed with his walk rate, the coupling led to one too many bad outings to begin the season. The A's demoted Straily in May and, when they needed a replacement for Drew Pomeranz, opted for Brad Mills. Who could blame them? Straily's numbers in Sacramento looked a lot like his numbers in Oakland, including a minor-league career-worst home-run rate.
Things weren’t much different for Straily during his short tenure in the Cubs organization. The walks dipped at the minor-league level (8 percent), but jumped up to 13 percent in his 13 2/3 innings in Chicago. The homers continued to be an issue.
The addition of Valbuena has the potential be more impactful and quite a bit more interesting. Luhnow said that Valbuena will have a chance to win the third-base job outright (a platoon with Matt Dominguez is also a possibility), and if he performs like he did last season, that should be the case.
Since joining the Cubs in 2012, Valbuena has slowly trended up at the plate, with 2014 marking a breakout for the versatile infielder. He led the team in pitchers per plate appearance and walk (4.17 and 12 percent) in 2014. His power numbers jumped last summer, when he was given regular playing time for the first time in his career; he set career-highs in extra-base hits (51) and ISO (.186), with his .294 TAv far and away the best he’s ever posted. He did sacrifice contact to increase his power, as he struck out 21 percent of the time, marking the first time he was worse than league average in either category since joining the Cubs.
Defensively, FRAA has consistently rated Valbuena a below-average glove at third, while DRS and UZR have been kinder, with all three having him at negative value last season (though DRS and UZR both liked him quite a bit the previous two seasons). Interestingly enough, both WARP and FanGraphs’ WAR gave Valbuena the edge to Fowler last season, while Baseball-Reference’s WAR said Fowler provided 0.2 more wins to his team. Fowler has clearly been the more productive player throughout his career and he’s actually a few months younger than Valbuena. However, the Astros are giving up a year of control of Fowler and getting two from Valbuena and five from Straily. But this really isn’t about whether Valbuena provides more value than Fowler—both the Cubs and Astros are filling needs and potentially upgrading holes in their 2015 lineups with this move and Fowler brings a much more consistent and impressive resume to the table.
As far as the Astros’ third-base situation goes, Dominguez has been a liability at the plate for Houston the past two seasons, and was particularly poor in 2014, walking very little (5 percent walk rate), not providing enough pop to make up for it (.115 ISO), and being more or less of a dead zone in the lineup (.212 TAv). There was a time when Dominguez was considered one of the best gloves at the hot corner, with numerous scouts claiming he was the best amateur they’d seen work the position. However, FRAA, DRS, and UZR all rated him below average in 2014, and UZR in particularly has never given him an above-average grade.
Valbuena isn’t a superstar, but beyond the numbers he brings a very strong approach to the plate and a pretty consistent glove that can work at both third and second. The quirky lefty is also a joy to watch, quickly becoming a fan favorite in Chicago with borderline–absurd bat-flips, appeals of his own checked swings (even when the home plate ump has already called a ball), and deliberate helmet shedding while chugging for extra bases.
Add all those things up with another statistical season like last summer and the Astros will be thrilled. But repeating the 2014 power jump will be key, and difficult. Maybe last year was the story of a player finally coming into his own, but all the seasons prior would suggest an outlier, a career year. If that’s the case, the Cubs maximized Valbuena’s value by moving him at his peak, essentially trading a back-up infielder and a fringe rotation piece for a bat that’s produced at a quality level for multiple seasons. Without the newfound pop, Valbuena turns into a tough out at the plate and a strong glove, but ultimately a utility one, at least on a team that’s contending for a playoff spot. —Sahadev Sharma
If there was ever a “National League pitcher” Straily was it. The former pop-up prospect can boast a mix of four average-or-better pitches when he’s on, but lacks a consistent strikeout offering. Moving back to the American League where he’ll face the designated hitter rather than the weak back ends of National League lineups is going to hurt Straily more than it might another starter. That said, he went from being on the outside looking in for the Cubs revamped rotation, to sitting in the fifth spot for Houston, which is good news for anyone in deep leagues who already owned him. While the potential remains for Straily to get squeezed out of Houston’s rotation mid-season, he’ll at least have the opportunity to post some MLB starts, rather than working from Triple-A.
Robin to Puig’s BatflipMan, Valbuena moves from a two-month seatwarmer to a timeshare in Houston. It’s possible he earns everyday at-bats if he can repeat last year’s success, but Matt Dominguez’s glove is going to be hard to ignore given Houston’s staff of groundball pitchers. And that’s before we get to Marwin Gonzalez which is a thing I never thought I’d ever have to type in a non-negative light. The likelihood of Valbuena being fantasy relevant is small, and this trade does nothing to change that. —Craig Goldstein
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Acquired OF Dexter Fowler from the Astros in exchange for INF-L Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily. [1/19]
At this past weekend’s Cubs Convention, a fan asked Joe Maddon what he looks for in a leadoff hitter.
“Just have a high on-base percentage, a guy who looks over pitches, a guy that has good decision-making at the plate,” Maddon replied. “And hopefully a guy that can run a little bit and cause some problems for the opposition's pitcher, catcher, and defense.”
When answering that question last Saturday, there’s a strong chance Maddon knew the Cubs were already targeting, and possibly even close to acquiring, Dexter Fowler.
Fowler has a career .366 OBP and 12.5 percent walk rate, and in 2014 he saw 4.13 pitchers per plate appearance, good for 14th in all of baseball. So he certainly checks off the at-the-plate aspects Maddon mentioned. And while he’s had double-digit steals in every full season he’s played, he isn’t an efficient basestealer, converting at a poor 68 percent rate for his career. However, according to Baseball Prospectus’ BRR and Frangraphs’ BsR, two statistics that evaluate baserunning abilities, Fowler has been above average for much of his career.
Perhaps the biggest concern would be how many of those numbers came in Coors Field, but his lone season away from altitude was encouraging: Yes, he posted his worst slugging percentage of his career (.399), but his OBP (.375) remained high—the atmosphere isn’t changing a player's plate approach and patience—and in doing so he delivered a career-best .292 TAv.
But Fowler also posted career-worsts in FRAA, DRS, and UZR in Houston, and he wasn't exactly starting from a high perch. Either the Cubs' scouts/proprietary statistics disagreed with those numbers or they’re willing to take the ding on defense in order to immediately upgrade an offense that’s in sore need of established veteran help. (It’s also possible that Fowler could spend the majority of his time in left, which could salvage his poor glovework, perhaps even making it plus, but that’s undetermined as of yet.)
The Cubs were 13th in OBP in the NL and 12th in runs per game last season. Sure, they have plenty of offensive talent in the pipeline, but, as they showed with the additions of Miguel Montero and David Ross, the Cubs aren’t solely focused on the future; they’d like to win in 2015 as well (and they’d prefer to not sacrifice that future in doing so). Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant are all immensely talented offensive players and the Cubs believe at some point they’ll contribute in a big way at the major-league level. But presently they’re unknowns. Relying on them in 2015 and expecting to immediately contend would be risky at best, and realistically, folly.
Not only does the addition of Fowler help keep the Cubs from relying on their abundance of talented youth, but it brings some stability to the outfield in particular. Soler was great in his 24-game stint to end last season (.325 TAv), but he struggled in his final 10 games (.533 OPS) as pitchers stopped challenging him in and pounded the outer half of the plate. He’ll have to prove he can adjust to that tactic. Alcantara struggled at the plate (.228 TAv) and is new to the outfield, after primarily manning shortstop and second base in the minors. Though he showed strong improvement throughout the season in center and there's plenty of reason for optimism, there is still work to do.
Fowler also makes the Cubs less reliant on Chris Coghlan (and to a lesser degree, Chris Denorfia, while pushing the likes Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake, and Matt Szczur down the depth chart), who was penciled in as the starter in left field. The team actually likes Coghlan quite a bit, and has reunited him with hitting coach John Mallee, with whom Coghlan worked during his 2009 Rookie of the Year campaign. The question with Coghlan, at least as far as the Cubs brass appears to be concerned, isn’t whether he can hit, but rather whether he can stay on the field. He did in 2009 and posted a .299 TAv and he did last year and post a .293 TAv. Every season in between was marred by a variety of injuries, which seemingly contributed to subpar performances.
Moving Straily doesn’t hurt much because the Cubs are flush with back-end rotation types, with Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner, and Tsuyoshi Wada among the many possibilities, but the loss of Valbuena stings slightly. But Mike Olt is available to fill in at third until Bryant is deemed "ready", which probably won’t be more than a month into the season, after the Cubs have secured an extra year of club control over Bryant. The addition of Fowler also adds another bit of versatility to the team, something that Maddon undoubtedly loves, and creates numerous potential defensive alignments. Fowler can play center, but the Cubs could push him to left and have Alcantara in center when a southpaw is on the mound. In general, Alcantara can be used in a variety of ways, playing numerous positions in the outfield and infield, including second base and maybe even third base, the latter two spots where Baez and Tommy La Stella could help out at as well.
Suggesting these three could help at third is purely speculation at the moment. Alcantara has 51 total games at the position, all in the minors, none since 2012. Baez and La Stella have no pro experience at the hot corner, but scouts have always believed Baez would excel at the position and the Cubs front office has mentioned the possibility in the past. He certainly has the arm to play the position. Maddon and the Cubs brass have repeatedly mentioned the word ‘versatility’ this season. I wouldn’t rule any type of creativity from this group that could immediately improve the team.
Just scanning Twitter over the past few hours, I’ve seen numerous different guesses as to what the Cubs Opening Night lineup may look like, and most of them were pretty realistic*. Maddon said this past weekend that he hasn’t started toying with lineups, but with the addition of Fowler, I’m sure he’ll be having plenty of fun with that task come spring training.
*Except for the ones with Bryant, which in my opinion just isn’t happening to start the season. I honestly don’t believe moving Valbuena means the Cubs have suddenly decided that gaining a year of control of Bryant is less important than getting a few weeks of production from someone who could struggle initially.
The gap between the good and bad scenarios for what the 2015 Cubs could look like is still quite large, but bringing in Fowler makes bold predictions, a little less crazy and that much more attainable. —Sahadev Sharma
Obvious analysis is obvious. Fowler retains a starting job, and neither of these lineups are particularly enviable. Fowler could see a mid-season boost if Kris Bryant is the living embodiment of Cubs’ fans’ dreams but the likelihood of an adjustment period makes this a net push for Fowler.
The jury is still out on this. Obviously Joe Maddon is a creative lineup setter, and it’s possible that Alcantara will only see a nominal change in playing time and more of a change in where he plays. It’s also possible the Cubs buy into Fowler's declining defensive numbers and put him in left field, and leave Alcantara alone in center. There’s also the matter of management’s recent statements saying that Baez could start the year in the minors, which would open up playing time for Alcantara on the infield dirt. Valbuena’s inclusion in the trade leaves third base a possibility as well, though Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella are options there too. The point being, there are myriad ways this can shake out, and until it does, we won’t truly know how this changes things for Alcantara. It’s an added complication, but not necessarily a negative one.
We can’t blame you for remembering Coghlan as a disappointment since his 2009 Rookie of the Year campaign, and you’d be accurate for thinking that. Still, he posted an .804 OPS in 432 plate appearances last year, punishing right-handers to the tune of a .294/.353/.480 slash line. It’s possible that this move leaves Coghlan in the lineup versus righties, with Alcantara shifting around the infield and outfield as needed, but the bottom line is that it adds a potential impediment to playing time that didn’t exist when he woke up this morning. That’s never a good thing for platoon players or fringe-big leaguers.
Mike Olt/Tommy La Stella
They had nowhere to play and now are potential options at third. Your best bet is own neither in a fantasy league. —Craig Goldstein.T