Counterpoint: Why Fowler is the wrong big money match for Jays

Nov 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Cleveland Indians in the first inning in game seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Cleveland Indians in the first inning in game seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

With the Blue Jays continuing to be linked to free agent Dexter Fowler, the front office will have some big decisions to make in the very near future.

By now we’re all aware of the free agent situation in Toronto this offseason (unless, of course, you’ve been living under a rock). The Blue Jays are set to potentially lose marquee free agents Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, as well as others like Michael Saunders and the already-departed Brett Cecil.

With two open starting outfield jobs available, the Blue Jays have been linked to most significant free agent outfielders and also several through the trade route, such as the rumours that will never die around Jay Bruce. The need is obvious, and the Blue Jays should have some money to spend.

Now that Yoenis Cespedes has re-signed with the New York Mets, it leaves Dexter Fowler as the top free agent outfielder available. Fowler set a career high with 4.2 bWAR en route to helping the Cubs to their first World Series in 108 years, and set himself up for a lucrative, long term contract. He’ll be 31 come opening day next season, so the timing couldn’t have better for the new World Series champ.

At the beginning of the offseason, the Blue Jays stated a desire to become less one-dimensional, and not to rely on the long ball as much as they have in recent seasons. They wanted to add speed, defence, and some left-handed bats to the lineup in order to give it more balance. If we’re looking strictly at this checklist, Dexter Fowler is “a square peg for a square hole”, as Keegan Matheson stated earlier.

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As obvious as the fit may be, the whole situation conjures up a question my grandmother once asked me, as I tried to pull my best Winnie the Pooh impression and steal the honey from the beehive in our backyard.

“Is your short term gain gonna be worth the pain?”

I initially ignored the life lesson, and was stung at least five times before I could retreat to the house. It may be a fairly obvious lesson, but I didn’t fully grasp what she meant until I had been attacked, and rewarded for my impatience with bruises and welts. To me, Dexter Fowler could be that treacherous beehive. Tempting you with the immediate gratification of honey, only to leave you running for home and wishing you had never entered the backyard.

Before you attack like those angry bees did, let’s take a look at a couple red flags around signing a player like Fowler:

  1. He has little to no experience in the outfield corners, and Kevin Pillar should NOT move from centre field. While he’ll be an asset when it comes to covering ground, Fowler does not have a terribly strong arm.
  2. He made some adjustments and became a plus fielder in CF in 2016, but Fowler was worth -12 Rdrs in 2015 (Defensive runs saved above average).
  3. Much of his value comes from his athleticism. His abilities on the base paths and in the outfield are central to his value. He’ll be 31 on opening day.

Not an exhaustive list, but allow me to elaborate on each point a little further.

  1. Fowler’s “ARM” rating on FanGraphs showed him as a -0.3 in 2016, -1.2 in 2015, and -5.7 in 2014. He would be a significant upgrade over Bautista and Saunders in the corners, but his defensive value isn’t used as well as a corner outfielder.
  2. Prior to 2015, Fowler was considered a below average defender in 2015. The advanced stats say that improved positioning helped him a great deal. Would leaving the familiarity of CF cause Fowler to take a step back defensively?
  3. The most important point, Fowler will be 31 on opening day, and is either through or nearing the end of his prime as an MLB player.

Taking a look at various “comparable player” lists, three names jump off the page when examining Fowler’s career arc. Does anybody get excited about the names Carl Crawford, Shane Victorino and Andre Ethier?

Crawford had a similar skill set to Fowler’s, and the four-time All-Star eventually signed a seven-year, $126 million dollar contract with the Boston Red Sox. He was jettisoned for pennies on the dollar just two seasons later, and might be out of baseball at age 34. He was cut by the Dodgers last year after just 30 games played and sat out the remainder of the season.

Either may not be the best comparable, but his story isn’t much different. Either signed a five-year, $85 million dollar extension prior to the 2014 season. While earning $17.5 million at age 34, the slugger played just 16 games and finished with a 0.2 WAR, and also has two years and $35 million remaining on his deal. Victorino did not play in the MLB in 2016, which would have been his age 35 season.

Next: The other side of the argument: In Fowler's favour

Comparing players can be a fool’s game, but there’s no denying some of the red flags that appear for players once they hit their 30s. When that player relies on athleticism as their major tool, regression can be a swift and unforgiving factor to consider. While Fowler looks like the type of player that could age well, these things are never an exact science. With any free agent, there is always a risk committing big money to one player.

In the case of handing that money to a “athleticism” guy over 30, Fowler represents the epitome of “risk vs. reward” in free agency. He may look like the missing piece right now, but giving a 4-to-5 year, big-money contract to a 31-year-old definitely comes with significant risk, even if the Blue Jays have money to spend.