2016 Statistics: 125 G, 551 PA, 13 HR, 84 RBI, .276/.393/.447, 129 wRC+, 4.2 WAR
Age on Opening Day 2017: 31
It's nearly December and there's hardly been any hot stove action to speak of, so there are plenty of attractive free agent targets out there. Among the most appealing options is Dexter Fowler, who had his market tempered by the qualifying offer last offseason when he was forced to return to Chicago on a one-year deal. That won't happen again this year.
Fowler is returning to the free agent market after the finest season of his career. His .276/.393/.447 line equated to a career best 129 wRC+. He displayed both solid power (a .171 ISO) and speed, stealing 13 bases and ranking 6.2 baserunning runs above average, according to FanGraphs.
That Fowler brings such a balanced and potent offensive game as a center fielder is impressive. However, it's hard to peg exactly how effective a defensive center fielder Fowler really is. Advanced metrics have varied when it comes to Fowler's contributions in the field. He was worth exactly one run this past season, according to UZR and DRS, but was 20 runs below average, according to both metrics as recently as 2014.
It's possible that Fowler's relatively solid recent defensive ratings stem from the Cubs' overall defensive brilliance. Chicago doesn't overshift as much as the rest of the league, but they do seem to position their fielders very precisely. Plus, they have a very talented pitching staff that appears to have a proclivity for inducing weak contact. Given that Fowler generally had poor defensive ratings prior to his time in Chicago, it seems that these factors could be what led to his positive defensive showings.
Even if Fowler isn't as good of a fielder as he seemed to be with the Cubs, his offensive abilities, and the fact that he still plays a premium position, make him a valuable player. He was worth 4.7 fWAR and 4.2 rWAR last season, well worth the $13 million the Cubs paid him. If he can approximate that kind of production, Fowler could be a steal on the free agent market.
The question is whether Fowler can really come close to his 2016 campaign. Prior to last season, Fowler generally profiled as a fine player, not an All-Star. By both fWAR and rWAR, Fowler was worth no more than 3.3 wins while remaining above 1.7 wins between 2011 and 2015, a model of consistency but not excellence.
Unsurprisingly, Fowler won't quite get paid like a four- or five-win player this winter. FanGraphs’ Steamer projections currently peg Fowler for 2.3 fWAR in 2017, a clear step down from 2016. Thus, Fowler looks headed for a hefty but not top of the market guarantee, something along the lines of four years for $60 or $70 million.
That appears like a reasonable commitment to give to a good player like him, but in the Yankees’ case, squeezing him into the lineup would pose a small problem. Signing someone like Fowler would probably necessitate a trade of an outfielder. In this case, Brett Gardner would be the most obvious candidate.
We've discussed whether it would be beneficial for the Yankees to flip Gardner for pitching and then sign a premier outfielder. If the Yankees want to spend money on a hitter, such a strategy seems to be fairly logical. Gardner should have value on a pretty cheap contract, and Fowler would be a strong replacement. None of this seems particularly likely, though.
A number of parts would have to be set in motion to facilitate a Fowler deal, so such a signing isn't to be expected. Still, if the Yankees want to acquire a real contributor who isn't deep into his 30s and won't require a guarantee near $100 million, there aren't many options better than Fowler.