It all makes the Orioles look bad, which isn’t fair. It was supposed to be easy enough for the Orioles to sign both Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler. Then, within a few days, the Gallardo talks nearly fell apart, and the Fowler talks did fall apart. Instead of the Orioles and Fowler having an agreement, it turns out Fowler wanted a one-year opt-out, which the Orioles wouldn’t give him. That’s a perfectly defensible stance, but here’s where we are now: Baltimore doesn’t have Dexter Fowler. Fowler has gone back to the Cubs, for a year and $13 million. It’s all been a pretty stunning turn of events, and the breakdown in the Baltimore talks has allowed the Cubs to answer the last big question they had.
For the Orioles, it’s a bad look, and it’s frustrating, because now they have to keep poking around to fill a hole they thought they’d fill. It’s probably somewhat bad for morale, and now you can likely expect the Orioles to get in contact with the Reds about Jay Bruce. It’s not the worst fallback in the world. Yet this is all really about the Cubs. The Cubs get to keep Fowler, if only for a year. It reduces the uncertainty for what’s pretty clearly a World Series favorite.
The Cubs actually made two moves, that are obviously linked. They signed Fowler, and while the deal comes with a mutual option for 2017, those are almost literally never picked up. And the Cubs also sent Chris Coghlan to the A’s, in exchange for Aaron Brooks. The Coghlan/Brooks move is interesting enough on its own, but we can just fold it in here. Coghlan wasn’t going to have a place in Chicago with Fowler back in the fold. Brooks could prove to be useful, this year and in several future years.
From the Oakland perspective, quickly, adding a year of Coghlan is about adding versatility. He’s a pretty decent hitter, at least against righties, and he’s capable of playing both the infield and the outfield, so he’s one of those guys you get to think of as a worse version of Ben Zobrist. The A’s roster picture looks to be complex, but there are serious questions about Coco Crisp, and about Billy Butler, and Eric Sogard hasn’t hit. Adding Coghlan sweeps more playing time to reliably adequate players, allowing the A’s to lift the floor. Brooks wasn’t and isn’t nothing, since the A’s don’t feature a ton of pitching depth, but Brooks was definitely on the outside of the rotation picture looking in. So they opted to make the exchange, in an effort to build a better 2016.
There are things for the Cubs to like about Brooks. There were things for the Cubs to like about Coghlan, but he was superfluous. Brooks has racked up barely any service time. He can be optioned to the minors, and in the minors he’s been a successful strike-thrower. There’s still work for Brooks to do if he wants to cement himself as a big-leaguer, but he owns a good changeup, and he’s maybe a tweak away from being Kyle Gibson, who owns an almost identical repertoire. Gibson himself is maybe a tweak away from being a No. 2, but Gibson now is a decent comp for Brooks, if he can locate a little bit better. Brooks slightly improves the Cubs’ future pitching situation, and he’s also more depth for the year ahead.
Let’s talk about that year ahead. And let’s talk about the bigger move, and its implications. The Cubs, as you well know, project to be perhaps the best team in baseball. It’s been that way for a while, and adding Jason Heyward provided a massive boost. Ever since the Cubs lost Fowler and added Heyward, there’s been speculation they could add a center fielder. Failing that, Heyward would move over to the middle, and the Cubs would trust in his adjustment. He’s still young, and he’s still plenty good.
As of this morning, Heyward looked to be the starter in center. And when we’ve talked about any potential Cubs weaknesses, people have looked to center field. Just based on positional adjustments and what Heyward has done in right, it objectively makes sense that Heyward could and would be fine in the middle, but then, you never really know how a move is going to go until it goes. Heyward hasn’t played that much center field. Maybe he’s unusually cut out for right. Maybe center would give him some fits; maybe it would have an effect on his hitting. Heyward’s always been a complicated player. Basically, there was some uncertainty around the Cubs making a huge splash and then asking that investment to try something new.
Now that’s history. Now it’s going to be Fowler in center, mostly, and Heyward back in right, mostly. Fowler isn’t considered to be a plus defensive center fielder, but he’s at least a proven center fielder, just as Heyward is a proven right fielder. The Cubs know what they’ll have in Fowler, and now they should have a better idea of what they’ll have in Heyward, since he gets to stay in his comfortable position. I have to say, I think Heyward could’ve managed center just fine, but this should improve the odds that Jason Heyward performs like Jason Heyward. There are fewer adjustments for him to make, this way, creating a clearer path to 5 WAR.
So that big question about Heyward is no longer relevant. The Cubs don’t have a great glove in the middle now or anything, but they’re damn sure they’ll have a great glove in right. The overall defensive picture is improved, because Heyward should be Heyward, and now Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler will split time in left. They’re both going to play a little less than they might’ve been expected to a few days ago. But they will play, and if anything this gives the Cubs further protection since Schwarber is a small question mark, and Soler is a bigger question mark. They’ll be asked to do less, but they’ll still be around and hopefully developing.
For Soler, this is like an organizational compromise. He’s not going to be an everyday player, but he also hasn’t been traded. So for now the Cubs get to hang on to his promise and then later on they can re-visit his place in the system. If he gains value, he could be flipped for a longer-term center fielder. If he doesn’t gain value, well, that’s what happens, but at least he’s not a starter. It would’ve been difficult for the Cubs to willingly shed his potential, so this isn’t a bad path.
The Cubs get to keep Soler. They improved their starting-pitching depth. And most importantly, with Fowler coming back, the Cubs get to return Heyward to where Heyward can be Heyward. There’s less uncertainty on this roster than there was on the same roster a day ago, and for a team in the Cubs’ favored position, uncertainty is the enemy. Uncertainty is what threatens to drop the Cubs back to the pack. Certainty keeps the Cubs a step or two ahead. It’s not like the Cubs have figured out how to make baseball predictable or anything, but they’ve taken a step to make it less unpredictable, and the predictions we have see the Cubs as the best team in the league. You can understand why they want to lock that in.
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