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Surprise! In bringing back Fowler, Cubs further solidify role as favorites

In a surprise move, the Chicago Cubs re-signed free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler in a move that further solidifies them as World Series favorites.

MESA, Ariz.—In a wild morning that ranks as one of the most notable sports surprises since the return of Roger Clemens to the Bronx and the Manti Te'o saga in college football, the Chicago Cubs—already the odds-on favorite to win the World Series—plugged the two biggest remaining holes on the best roster in baseball. They did so while somehow hoodwinking the Baltimore Orioles, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, virtually all of their own players and the entire social media world.

“Surprise!” was the first word spoken by Cubs president Theo Epstein as he sat down in front of a microphone Thursday to announce the bargain basement re-signing of free-agent centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who in the virtual world was practically already an Oriole. Fowler, invoking more modern verbiage that recalled l’affaire Te’o—the Notre Dame football player found to have a fake girlfriend three years ago—opened with this gem: “Catfish!”

By any name, the signing of Fowler (plus the trade for righthander Aaron Brooks) after a winter of adding free agents Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey was an undeniably huge coup for Epstein & Co. In each of those free-agent cases, the players turned down more money elsewhere to be a Cub.

Cubs score coup, Orioles stunned as Fowler returns to Chicago

Let that roll around your mind a bit. The franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908 and established itself as the geographical graveyard of hope now has players forsaking millions of dollars just to grab a precious seat on the bandwagon. Chicago signed Fowler, 29, for just $13 million for one year—$8 million in salary and a $5 million buyout on a 2017 option (which is worth $9 million if the club exercises it). That’s two years and $18 million less than what the Giants gave Denard Span, a free-agent centerfielder who is two years older and less durable, earlier this off-season. It's also two years and $20 million less than the reports that had Fowler already signed with Baltimore.

Asked when he decided to sign with the Cubs, Fowler said, “Right before all the Baltimore stuff came out.”

“I was getting ready to text him to congratulate him [on the Orioles' contract],” Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s when I was told not to do that.”

Fowler and Epstein laughed about the extent and the supposed veracity of the Fowler-to-Baltimore reports. While the rush to get the news first ruled the day on social media, Fowler was making the roughly five-hour drive from his home in Las Vegas to the Cubs’ camp in Arizona to finalize the deal with Chicago. (“I see up on the board all the time [that the betting odds are] 4:1,” Fowler said of the Cubs’ status as World Series favorite.) He took his physical Thursday morning, and as soon as doctors cleared him, the deal was done.

Orioles get Gallardo, but loss of Fowler, draft pick stings

Epstein looped in only a small circle of team personnel about the signing. Maddon told outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Heyward, the latter of whom was supposed to move from his natural position of rightfield to centerfield to replace Fowler. Midway through the Cubs’ morning workout, Maddon and the coaches summoned the entire team and staff for a meeting on the pitching mound of a back practice field. While Maddon addressed the team with diversionary seriousness—yakking about the upcoming shave-your-head day—Epstein walked in through a gate in the fencing behind first base with Fowler, who was dressed in black jeans and a white Jordan T-shirt.

The ebullient reaction spoke to not just the surprise of the staged event, but also the likability of Fowler among his teammates. The biggest hug of all came from Heyward. The two of them were once known as “the twins” while playing high school and travel baseball in suburban Atlanta, with Fowler three grades ahead of Heyward.

Baseball had seen nothing like this since May 6, 2007, when the Yankees announced the signing of Clemens by having him stand up in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium. But that was barely one year after Twitter began, and long before agents and general managers thought it was good business to leak signings and trades so fast that often the bread is still baking in the oven. (See Flores, Wilmer; Iwakuma, Hisashi; et al.)

Epstein admitted that there was a small victory in actually keeping the signing quiet, but he said the mid-practice surprise was staged because “Dexter deserved a great moment” after wandering the winter in Qualifying Offer Purgatory. He had been given a qualifying offer of one year and $15.8 million upon reaching the market and declined it, meaning that any team that signed him would have to surrender its highest unprotected draft pick this June.

“I think it’s flawed,” Fowler said of free agency in the day's one grim moment. “You wait for free agency and then they’re talking about a draft pick, and you don’t even know what’s going to happen to [that pick]. It definitely needs to change.”

Greetings from Cub Med: Spring life with the World Series favorites

Earlier this week, I wrote about the two biggest threats to the Cubs’ great expectations: a potentially poor defensive outfield built on the risk that the 240-pound Heyward could be an everyday centerfielder, and the lack of ready-made rotation depth, rather than counting on converting relievers into starters on the fly. Both problems were solved Thursday morning. Here’s how Chicago is even better today:

• Fowler will play the majority of time in centerfield (though the Cubs also will play Heyward there on occasion) flanked by Schwarber and Jorge Soler when Fowler gets a day off (probably against righthanded pitching; the switch-hitter has an .829 OPS against lefties in his career, compared to .761 against righties).

•​ Soler will see time in leftfield and rightfield, depending on that day’s outfield alignment.

•​ Schwarber will get more starts behind the plate than he would have under the original outfield alignment. Schwarber’s lefthanded power bat has to be in the lineup against every righthanded starter. Last year, the Cubs saw 128 righthanded starters. As a rough guess, Schwarber will start the 10 interleague games as the DH, about 40 games as a catcher and about 80 games as a leftfielder.

• In a related move, the Cubs traded outfielder Chris Coghlan to Oakland for Brooks. Coghlan was scheduled to earn $4.8 million; the $3.2 million difference between Fowler’s 2016 salary and Coghlan’s was explained this way by Epstein: “We found a little bit of money. Sales have been good.” Epstein said the club still was able to preserve the rainy-day fund set aside for midseason additions.

The 25-year-old Brooks is the answer to the rotation depth problem: a young starter with options who can go back and forth as needed between the majors and the minors. At first glance, the addition of Brooks looks underwhelming. He is a former ninth-round draft pick of Kansas City who has an 8.38 ERA in 58 major league innings with the Royals and Athletics with a low strikeout rate (6.2 per nine).

But Brooks has proved in 257 2/3 Triple A innings, in which he went 19–8 with a 3.74 ERA, that he is strike thrower, as evidenced by his 1.6 walks per nine. More importantly, he is the kind of undervalued pitcher who is now in demand because of modern metrics. The Dodgers and Pirates, two other National League pennant contenders, were after Brooks. Why? The metrics from his Pitch F/X numbers—the spin and deception he has on the baseball—suggested to all three suitors that he is a back-of-the-rotation breakout waiting to happen. The Cubs valued his minor-league metrics as suggestive of another Kyle Hendricks, a former eighth-round pick with underwhelming pure stuff who has gone 15–9 over the past two seasons for Chicago.

•​ Maddon, who treats batting orders and in-game maneuvers as malleable as Play-Doh, has more wet clay with which to play. The man who gave us Kris Bryant in centerfield last year might, on any given day in 2016, have on his bench super-utility player Javy Baez, infielder Tommy LaStella and the switch-hitting Fowler or power-hitting Soler or Schwarber. Maddon also has a lineup now loaded with high on-base percentage hitters: Fowler, Heyward and Zobrist posted OBPs last year of .346, .359 and .364, respectively.

Don’t try to suggest the Cubs have “a problem” trying to work four outfielders into three spots. Today’s game, minus the amphetamines, is one of attrition and roster management. The last time Chicago had three outfielders play at least 140 games each was the 96-loss 2006 team (Jacque Jones, Juan Pierre and Matt Murton). The way to roll now is to have contingencies before the season starts. With Fowler and, to a lesser extent, Brooks, the Cubs have those contingencies and a manager who can make it work. They don’t have just depth; they have something coined by the late Earl Weaver on what he wanted in his championship Orioles teams: “deep depth.”