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Signed CF-S Dexter Fowler to a three-year deal worth $33 million.
[UPDATE: It was all lies.]
The painful thing about Dexter Fowler’s prolonged, relatively unfruitful free agency is that he did everything right. Several of this winter’s qualifying offer candidates had the opposite of the ideal contract year, getting hurt, or suffering through prolonged stretches of ineffectiveness that sapped their value once they hit the market—especially because they also had the loss of a draft pick attached to them. Ian Desmond is still on the market, and Howie Kendrick had to settle for two years and $20 million, but Ian Kennedy got paid well despite his struggles. Lord knows Jeff Samardzija cashed in handsomely on his potential, despite an ugly platform season.
Other players got lucky enough to be traded mid-season, and three had sufficient foresight to accept the qualifying offer instead of testing the market after middling campaigns. Denard Span managed to inspire so little confidence that the Nationals didn’t even make him a qualifying offer, a stroke of luck that made it fairly easy for him to land a three-year, $31 million deal.
No such luck for Fowler. He had the first fully healthy season of his career in 2015, and was, if anything, better than ever. He couldn’t have done much of anything, short of transforming into a new player, to boost his stock more. Making a qualifying offer to him was an easy call for the Cubs, and turning it down was an easy call for Fowler. He seems to have been marooned on Free Agent Island by little more than bad luck and, perhaps, some bad valuations.
Seriously, it’s hard to tell what anyone used to dismiss Fowler this winter. He’s two different hitters from the two sides of the plate, and both profiles needed some heavy adjustments in order for Fowler to have a successful contract year. His athleticism isn’t much diminished—he’s unbelievably slender for 29—but this is precisely the age at which both types of hitter he had been have to either adapt or decline. In 2015, he decidedly did the former, especially in the second half.
From the left side, that meant an adjustment to his set-up and trigger movements that got his bat up to speed sooner and allowed him to pull the ball with both more frequency and more authority. From the right side, it meant a little more plane in his swing, allowing him to hit for a little more power in those situations, even if it meant a little less contact. From both sides, he overcame opposing pitchers’ targeting of the ample area just below his knees—fertile ground for unhittable called strikes, in this era of the lower-than-ever strike zone, on a batter whose nickname is Daddy Long Legs. He also swung less than ever on pitches outside the zone, and made contact more often than ever on pitches in the zone.
The overall campaign wasn’t a career year by any means, though the second half was the best half Fowler has ever had. He kept right on striking out a lot, to the chagrin, one imagines, of traditionalists who can’t stand when a leadoff hitter does that. Still, he was really, really good, a bona fide top-of-the-order guy. As for his defense, which the numbers have always tabbed as suspect in center field:
The numbers were split on Fowler in 2015, but FRAA was the big believer, calling him an above-average fielder out there. He certainly appeared to make real improvements, if subtle ones. Instead of embracing him as a truer center fielder than we thought, though, the market shunned him into a corner spot.
The Orioles profit from Fowler’s disenfranchisement here. This deal is a steal, for a player who fits the needs of the team perfectly. Mark Trumbo no longer faces the prospect of playing the field. There’s no pressure for new left fielder Hyun-Soo Kim to be an immediate OBP asset. A power-heavy, OBP-starving lineup gets exactly what it needed—a player whose strengths profile leans the other way. From Fowler’s perspective, it’s $33 million to which he won’t say no. He deserved better, though.
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