I started blogging about the Rockies in 2009, five long seasons ago. Among those on the Opening Day roster that playoff year, only Troy Tulowitzki, Jorge de la Rosa and Dexter Fowler remain with the organization. It would follow that I have a pretty good handle on those three individuals as players, as I have scrutinized no three players longer than those three.
I feel confident I understand the capabilities, strengths, weaknesses and generally what to expect from the first two players listed. Fowler, however, will confound me forever.
As a surprise Opening Day roster callup, Fowler was supposed to be a whiz in center field, a terror on the basepaths, and a perfect leadoff hitter who can take walks and drive balls into the gap. Instead, he has rated poorly with defensive metrics his entire career and has yet to look comfortable stealing bases. A switch hitter, he has spent entire seasons performing much better from the right side of the plate, only to reverse himself and hit much better from the other side.
Fowler's raw skill excited yet was prone to extreme streakiness, earning him a month-long demotion to AAA in his first 3 MLB seasons. He finally stayed in the big leagues in 2012 and looked prime to finally break out in 2013. His name was prevalent in trade rumors in the offseason, but the Braves, Nationals and Phillies elected to fill their center field vacancies with B.J. Upton, Denard Span and Ben Revere, respectively.
In early April, Fowler made those teams look foolish. Dexter homered in 4 of his first 6 games, then added a two-home-run game in Petco Park in the tenth game giving him a .325/.386/.825 line with 6 HR just 10 games into the season. He added two more in April and sported a 172 wRC+ despite a below-career-average BABIP.
Of course, nothing makes sense with Fowler, and his 2013 season reflected his career-to-date variances, only to new and confounding extremes. The home runs stopped coming. Fowler managed just four more the rest of the season. Meanwhile, he re-established his base-stealing ability, posting the most stolen bases since his rookie year.
His gap-driving ability and speed ceased to be a weapon, as the one-time Nation League triples champion managed just three three-baggers, one more than Chris Nelson. The lack of triples did not translate to an increase in doubles either, as Fowler managed just 18, a career low and just one more than Charlie Blackmon. In all, Fowler managed just 33 extra base hits, shattering his career-low (40, 2010).
So much for the guy that was basically Barry Bonds in April. In summation, Fowler brought speed and power fans have either never seen or had not seen in a long time from him, yet he had his worst ISO since his rookie year. Okay.
The other wrinkle in Fowler's season was repeated injuries. Fowler lost two days in Spring Training to a sprained ankle. In season, he missed a game in early May due to a sore hip, four games in July with a hand injury following a HBP, then 14 games with a sore wrist and 14 games with a knee sprain.
After everything came out in the wash, Fowler ended up with a season worth roughly 2.0 WAR, which is slightly below what he has been over the last two years. Given 2013 was Fowler's age 27 season, that is a bit of a disappointment, but he still managed to be quite valuable.
|2013 - Dexter Fowler||119||415||71||109||18||3||12||42||65||105||19||9||.263||.369||.407|
|Dexter Fowler - 2013 WAR||Bat (R)
No Rockies player is in a more interesting spot this off-season. Fowler is due to earn $7.35 million in 2014 as part of an arbitration avoidance contract signed before 2013, then will have one more year of arbitration before being a free agent following 2015.
Carlos Gonzalez is willing to move back to center field. While Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez were hurting, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson were performing well, almost matching Fowler's offensive productivity between them. While Fowler has a better defensive reputation, metrics suggest Dickerson or Blackmon would not be much of a downgrade, if any, in center field. (I don't much believe this personally). Additionally, former first round pick and AAA CF Tim Wheeler has been performing well in the Arizona Fall League and provides further depth.
When looking to improve your team on a budget, it is wise to trade from a position of strength to a position of weakness, hopefully freeing up salary at the same time. Fowler matches that description more than anyone. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo are both center fielders and free agents, but after that, a team looking to upgrade their center field situation through free agency would be looking at Curtis Granderson and Nate McLouth, neither of which are good center fielders. If there were ever an opportunity to acquire pitching without touching the cheap and/or vital core of the roster, Fowler would likely bring the best pitcher back in trade.
The evaluation of what Fowler is worth is tricky though. The defensive metrics don't square with his reputation in center field, and his wildly varied Major League resume will lead to several different opinions on who he is. While the Rockies will likely hold the price high, they have dealt similar homegrown players in the recent past (Chris Iannetta/Seth Smith). Beyond the logics of trading the outfielder, it seems to be on the front office's mind.