Setting the table: Dexter Fowler looks to lead off a Cubs’ turnaround

Dexter Fowler joins what already had been a crowded Cubs outfield.
In the competitive mix for the three starting outfield positions and an unknown number of reserve spots along with the Cubs’ newcomer are another offseason acquisition, Chris Denorfia, and six returning Cubs: Chris Coghlan, Junior Lake, Jorge Soler, Ryan Sweeney, Matt Szczur, and Arismendy Alcantara.

Add it up: That’s eight outfielders. Last season, the team’s Opening Day roster included only five outfielders. Something’s got to give.

Out of that bunch, Fowler, along perhaps with Soler, is considered the surest lock for a starting role. With Fowler in center and Soler in right, Coghlan (who can also play center) and Denorfia are likely to battle for the third starting spot in left field. Alcantara adds value because of his ability to play both infield and outfield positions and will likely get plenty of playing time at all spots other than catcher and pitcher. That leaves Lake, Sweeney and Szczur to compete for what might be at most one extra spot.

With so many outfielders already on the club and outfield prospects like Albert Almora and Billy McKinney waiting in the wings – not to mention the possibility that the team’s No. 1 prospect, Kris Bryant, could be moved from third base to the outfield – what possessed the Cubs to trade away veteran third baseman Luis Valbuena, along with right-handed reliever Dan Straily, to the Astros to get Fowler, a 29-year-old centerfielder?

Fowler didn’t exactly come cheap. The Cubs recently avoided arbitration with the outfielder by signing him to a one-year $9.5 million contract. That makes him the fourth highest paid Cubs player, behind only Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson and Miguel Montero.
That the Cubs did make that deal is a strong signal that they are ready to seriously compete this year. Fowler brings to the table a number of strengths that the team likely saw as lacking when it considered that growing list of outfield candidates for this season: veteran experience, versatility, the ability to get on base, and speed.
In his five full seasons with the Colorado Rockies and last season with the Houston Astros, Fowler has proven a durable outfielder, playing in an average of 128 games a season, primarily in center field. He brings stability and leadership to the outfield.

A natural leadoff hitter, Fowler is expected to be the Cubs’ table-setter. Last season, he hit an impressive .393 while leading off an inning. He has a career .271 BA and .366 OBP. He is also a switch-hitter, giving manager Joe Maddon a lot of flexibility.
Fowler also gives the Cubs some much-needed speed on the base paths, averaging 19 stolen bases a season.
“The Cubs certainly gained a lot with the acquisition of Dexter Fowler,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Jason Parini. “Most significantly, they now have a solid leadoff hitter and some veteran experience in center field. Fowler also brings the option of a switch-hitter, another good trait to have in a leadoff hitter.”

If there’s a knock on Fowler, it’s his defense. Last year, playing in Houston, he ranked as the worst center fielder in all of MLB in terms of defensive runs saved (-20). However, Cubs Insider came to the defense of Fowler’s defense in a recent analysis, suggesting that his woes in the field are due, at least in part, to poor positioning, a flaw that is easily correctable with proper coaching.

“If any group of coaches is going to turn Fowler into a good defensive center fielder, it’s probably this one,” wrote Cubs Insider’s Tommy Cook, stating that he’s “pretty bullish on Fowler’s chances to be a useful defensive outfielder in 2015.”
In an interview with MLB Network following his trade to the Cubs, Fowler sounded genuinely enthusiastic about playing for manager Joe Maddon and his new team. “My immediate reaction was like, Okay?” Fowler said. “Then I was like Chicago? And then I got a huge smile on my face because I know how good we are going to be.”

Photo: Dexter Fowler / Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped