The hot stove has been turned on, and B.J. Upton is totally inside. That might be a bit misleading; the long-time Rays outfielder isn’t being burned alive or anything, he’s just one of the most talked about free agents on the open market this winter. Upton is reportedly going to decide where he’s going in the next week or so, and three teams appear to be finalists. The first two of these organizations are the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, while MLB Trade Rumors suggests that the Reds and Nationals may be all up in this thing too. Upton is an interesting free agent to be sure, but another related tidbit caught my eye: Upton’s signing may prompt someone to go out and trade for current Colorado center fielder Dexter Fowler.
I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way now. I really like Dexter Fowler, and I have for years. Our little fling began during his days as a prospect rumored to be a possible Superlative Leadoff Hitter. Superlative Leadoff Hitters, or SLHs as we’ll one day call them once we’re a household name and all, are among the rarest types of baseball players in the known universe. Managers are gradually starting to see that speed alone does not make a top-of-the-order hitter, but that hasn’t stopped some truly awful batsmen from stepping up to the plate with greater frequency than their more accomplished teammates.
Fowler has long appeared to have the tools in his bag to get on base at a high rate, drive the ball to the gaps and over the fence, steal bases, and play good defense at a premium position. We’ve all seen his ability in flashes, but only recently has he worked his way out of the doghouse he seemed to be residing in for a couple of years and established himself as a threat to become what I always suspected he could be. Fowler built on a solid 2011 (.350 wOBA in 563 PA) to truly excel at the plate in 2012. Fowler hit .300/.389/.474 with 13 long balls and a 12.8% walk rate in 530 PA for a terrible Rockies team, and he won’t turn 27 until next March.
It’s also worth mentioning that Fowler doesn’t necessarily project as a player who will benefit as greatly from playing his home games at Coors Field as others might. His high walk rate and power that relies more on splitting gaps than clearing fences could mean he’ll succeed anywhere. The ability is certainly there, but more consistent performance would be welcome. Keep in mind that Fowler’s 2012 splits (.984 OPS at home, .720 on the road) don’t bear out my supposition; I’m going mostly on the fact that players who take this many free passes as center fielders are valuable.
Fowler’s defensive ability and baserunning are also potentially sore subjects, as he’s extremely fast but has never translated that to high stolen base success rates or defense that UZR likes. Once again, with his speed and natural ability we could really see Fowler blossom into a different beast altogether. He’s already made big gains offensively, and there aren’t many reasons to think he can’t do the same afield. The underlying message here is that while Fowler has made huge strides, he still has a ways to go to become a star or even be B.J. Upton. Upton, for all the times he’s been maligned and panned for never bringing himself to the next level, has quietly become a 3-4 WAR option each and every season he plays. Fowler is on the way to doing the same if he works hard and develops the way I want to believe he can. Sorry if I seem overly confident; I feel I have a personal stake in his career solely because of a fantasy draft pick several years ago. Call me names if you must!
I guess the question I’m asking is this: if you’re a general manager interested in Upton, would you rather gamble on Fowler in a trade? A lot of the answer to that question depends on what assets would be surrendered in the deal, but I think it’s a valid option to consider. Fowler is a couple of years younger and appears more likely to make improvements that Upton has never seemed to nail down. The .375 wOBA Fowler put up in 2012 easy bests every season of Upton’s career save for his banner 2007, and keep in mind that wOBA is a statistics that accounts for park and league, so Coors isn’t a big factor. Upton has made his true value known with excellent baserunning and solid glove work; at the plate he has been spotty and has recently shown a less patient approach than he had in the past. Fowler may be kind of the opposite, as he could assure a team of high OBP figures and plenty of doubles.
It’s entirely possible a life away from Coors Field is one that won’t showcase Dexter Fowler at his best, but I think it’s more likely he ends up a player nearly as valuable as Upton at a cheaper rate. Upton is going to cash in on a huge payday very soon, while Fowler can’t hit free agency until 2016. A team looking to contend and keep its fiscal expenses down might be well-advised to go ahead and take a shot at Fowler rather than bogging down its payroll with Upton. The Rockies can ask quite a bit for Fowler, but given the returns we’ve seen in prospect-centered trades of late, maybe he can be had for less than perceived. If so, I’d rather take the over on his future and let someone else deal with whatever B.J. Upton decides to do for, say, the next six years.