Pesky rumors persisted for far too long, this winter, that the Houston Astros would hook free-agent outfielder and on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo. That was never going to happen. It was always going to be Dexter Fowler, or someone like him.
WIth Jacoby Ellsbury having signed with the New York Yankees, Choo is the clear top talent on the free-agent outfield market. He’s a hitter with good power, and he’s athletic enough to play center field (poorly) or either corner spot (quite well). What really makes Choo attractive, though, is his tremendous ability to get on base, to draw walks and work counts and create rallies. There aren’t a half-dozen players who are better at it in baseball; hence Choo’s .423 OBP last season.
For that reason, though, he was never realistic for the Astros. An OBP that high makes you a premium talent. Choo will sign somewhere for at least five years and at least $100 million, and the team acquiring him will do it because they can leverage his on-base skills immediately, not halfway through the deal.
The Astros struck elsewhere on Tuesday, though, bringing in Fowler from the Colorado Rockies, in exchange for starting pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes. Fowler is not Choo, but he’s not a bad facsimile, and above and beyond being available, he was downright affordable. He will only make $7.35 million in 2014, and he’s under team control, although not an actual contract as yet, for 2015, too.
Fowler is a quieter version of Choo. He has a little bit less pop and strikes out more, but they’re strikingly similar. Unlike Choo, Fowler is a switch-hitter, and because the platoon advantage lives mostly in control of the strike zone, that permits Fowler to consistently walk roughly 12 percent of the time, regardless of who’s on the mound.
Leaving Coors Field will hurt his offense. Choo fans nearly a quarter of the time, historically, when batting right-handed, facing lefties. That’s a high figure, and it will get higher as he moves out of the thin air of Colorado, which favors contact by denting pitchers’ abilities to create major spin and movement on breaking pitches. He’s also the proud owner of 53 career triples (in just five seasons), a product of the wide expanse of the Coors Field outfield. Some of those will still be triples in Houston, and throughout the American League, but some will be doubles, some will be home runs and some will be fly outs. Those triples have inflated an isolated-power number that has rarely been meaningfully higher than an average batter’s, anyway. Fowler doesn’t have impactful power. That will be exposed by this transition.
Still, the on-base skills are real. They may even augment, as he reaches his late peak. (He’ll turn 28 just before Opening Day.) Fowler’s defense will also get a fair evaluation, for better or worse. None of the major systems smart people use to discern defensive prowess these days smile on Fowler’s work in center field, but nor do any of them make terribly effective adjustment for the environment in Colorado, where the elevation and the dimensions make it very difficult to get to balls that might be easy outs, or at least wouldn’t find such open space, in other parks. Scouting consensus is that Fowler’s defense is quite good, so with a season in a normal environment, we’ll test the acumen of the pundits.
Overall, Fowler is the right player for the Astros. He’s a leadoff hitter who might grow into a fine fifth or sixth hitter. He brings the plate approach they value, and he fits either as a long-term asset or a flippable one.
There’s one more thing he does, too: Fowler distracts from any conversation about whether George Springer, the Astros’ most polished prospect, should start the season with the parent club. Springer split time between Double- and Triple-A in 2013. He hit 37 home runs, stole 45 bases, batted over .300 and walked 83 times. He, too, is a center fielder, although given his power, he’ll play fine as a corner outfielder, too. Whereas there would have been some temptation—and considerable public demand—to have him break camp with the Astros prior to this move, Fowler’s arrival gives the team a virtual free pass to keep Springer in Triple-A until early May. In so doing, they can secure another year of team control over him. If Fowler is as good as I expect he will be, and the Astros are as bad as I expect they will be, the team could even hold back Springer until roughly the midpoint of the year, thereby keeping him from reaching arbitration after two-plus seasons.
That may all sound technical, penurious and shifty, but:
- The rewards of those strategies outweigh even a public-relations hit. Knowing Springer will not get expensive on them until at least 2018 would be a major win for the Astros.
- The rules are the rules, and if MLB doesn’t want teams to manipulate the rules so much, they should eliminate or reduce the incentives to do so, by changing the rules.
- Fowler and Springer really are both best utilized in center field, so pushing one to a corner spot before it’s necessary doesn’t make sense—and that goes double if the notion is to showcase Fowler and trade him for more than they paid.
The Rockies blew it by letting Fowler go so cheaply. Jordan Lyles is very young, yet, and has seen his fastball velocity ramp up and his results slightly improve as he recovers from having been badly rushed in his development. Still, he’s a below-average pitcher. Colorado has had good luck with some cast-offs and unorthodox pitchers of late, but Lyles is a risky project.
Brandon Barnes is a mess of a player. At 27, he stole 11 bases, but also got caught 11 times. No one does that anymore. He walked 21 times, and struck out 127, in 445 plate appearances. He’s a solid defensive center fielder, even a very good one, but unless Coors Field is going to unlock massive power, something more than it would add for any other player, Barnes will remain an untenable big-league regular.
The Astros won this deal, running away, and while Fowler doesn’t make them competitive in the near term, he’s an awfully nice piece to add, for whatever use, as the team gets close to realizing the benefits of its rebuild.Next post: Craig Gentry and Three New Pitchers Promise Serious Run Prevention for 2014 Oakland Athletics
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