DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
One thing is for certain, the Toronto Blue Jays need at least 1 and probably 2 outfielders if they hope to contend for the postseason next year. This has led to speculation that Dexter Fowler should be among the Jays top targets. A free agent formally of the Chicago Cubs, Fowler is probably the best free agent outfielder still on the market. Because of this weak class of free agents, Fowler is expected to capitalize with a 4 or 5 year deal worth a significant portion of money. But is he worth it, and does he have any hidden flaws which the Blue Jays should be aware of before signing Fowler to a long term, big money contract?
If seems as if every Blue Jays fans want Fowler and it is easy to see why. He put up a .393 OBP, a .840 OPS, and a 129 WRC+ last season. In addition, he put up average defensive numbers in center field, and moving him to the corner would theoretically improve those numbers, especially with Kevin Pillar manning center. Plus Fowler is a switch hitter with decent speed and strong plate discipline, so what's not to love. There turns out to be more than you think, especially when some of Fowler's career numbers.
The first of my concerns with Fowler is his supposedly average defense, and last season’s numbers support this with 1 DRS and a UZR of 1.0. But if you look at his career defensive numbers, you notice that last season was the exception rather than the norm. In fact, Fowler put up -64 DRS for his career, as well as a UZR/150 of -10.6. These numbers are far from strong, which is why I speculate his defensive value is far worse than average. In addition, his only season with an AL club was in 2014 with the Houston Astros, and in that season he put up -20 DRS and a -36.2 UZR/150. Fowler also lacks the strong arm which would be required for a corner outfielder. He has a career high of 6 outfield assists and generally has a reputation for having a weak arm. This weakness will only further be exposed in a corner outfield spot, as the need for an arm is far greater in the corner than in center. Fowler also lacks experience playing in the corner outfield. In his entire major league career, Fowler has just 1 inning played outside of center and that was way back in 2008, so it may take him some time to get acclimatized playing in a corner. All told, Fowler's defense is far weaker than the immediate stats suggest, so the Jays need to be careful of this if they want to sign Fowler.
In addition to his defense, Fowler has some alarming splits which the Jays should be aware of. Although Fowler was pretty decent against righties last year, Fowler has struggled against righties for his career, with a dramatically increased strikeout rate (24.3% for righties, 17.1% for lefties) and a very average WRC+ of 105. Not to say he is completely clueless against righties, it's just he's not as good as someone who would normally get his contract in a better free agent class. There are also numbers which suggest he was incredibly lucky, especailly with regards to batted ball luck, where he managed a BABIP of .330 and .358 against lefties and righties respectively last season. Fowler also fades under the pressure of big situations, with just a career WRC+ of 90 in what is classified as a high leverage situation. Plus, his slugging percentage lowers dramatically as well, dropping from .422 to .353 in big spots. All told, it’s not just sunshine and roses when discussing Fowler's ability to hit which I believe is not as good as what some Jays fans would lead you to believe. He has real concerns including moderate righty lefty splits, an above average BABIP, and a reasonable regression in high leverage situations.
Despite these numbers, my biggest concern with Fowler has nothing to do with a fault of his. Instead, it’s the free agent class. With Yoenis Cespedes returning to the New York Mets, focus shifted to Fowler as the best remaining free agent outfielder as he seems prized to capitalize on the market. Though this is good for him since he gets more money than he would normally, it’s bad for the Jays since they have to overpay a player with some obvious faults. Fowler is also coming off arguably the best season of his career, and seems as if he is going to take advantage. I speculate he could land a contract around 4 years and 70 million dollars or 5 years and about 80 million dollars, but I believe he is actually worth around 3 years and 50 million or 4 years and 60 million. That is a significant gap between what he is actually worth and what he might get, and the Blue Jays should be significantly concerned with this fact, or else the end of this contract could end up costing them dearly.
Fowler appears to be a talented and strong outfielder when looking into his traditional stats, but my investigation showed that Fowler has some severe weaknesses both offensively and especially defensively. As a result, I believe that the Jays need to be careful about signing the outfielder; otherwise he could end up being a serious negative with these somewhat hidden concerns. Although the Jays need outfielders, I suspect that Fowler is not the best option in terms of bang for your buck. Instead of Fowler, I would support trade targets like J.D. Martinez or Andrew McCutchen, or less expensive free agents like Ian Desmond or Carlos Gomez. Unfortunately, I'm not the GM so all I can do is wait for the Jays decision and hope for the best in 2017 and beyond.