Even though the regular season is six weeks away, Dexter Fowler already has his timing down: The free-agent outfielder has reached an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles on a three-year, $35 million contract, just one day before the team’s position players are scheduled to report to spring training.
For an O’s team that had already dropped an eye-popping $208 million this offseason to retain the trio of Chris Davis, Darren O'Day, and Matt Wieters, plus another $35 million on Yovani Gallardo as a replacement for Wei-Yin Chen (assuming Gallardo passes the team's medical review), signing Fowler easily represents their biggest upgrade of the season. The former Cub, who has batted first for most of his eight-year career and boasts a .363 lifetime on-base percentage, should slide right into the top of Buck Showalter's order, giving the O's their most legit leadoff hitter since Brian Roberts in 2009.
Last year, the Birds used seven different players in the one hole, most notably Manny Machado, who posted a .364 OBP in 111 starts at the top of the lineup. By bringing in Fowler, that allows Showalter to move Machado down in the order, where his power bat (35 homers last season) can do more damage. It also allows for the possibility of Hyun Soo Kim -- the Korean free agent who was a potential leadoff candidate despite lacking top-of-the-order speed -- to move down, perhaps to the 2-hole, where his contact bat would be a natural fit.
Defensively, Fowler has spent the entirety of his eight-year career playing center field, but the Orioles already have someone there who’s pretty darned good at his job (see: Jones, Adam). Although Fowler isn’t considered an elite glove man, there’s no question that the 29-year-old switch-hitter -- who had 17 homers and 20 steals with the Cubs last season and whose 84 walks would’ve tied Davis for most on the O’s -- will be an immediate and substantial improvement over the cast of characters that attempted to replace Nick Markakis in right in 2015.
Of course, that upgrade comes at a cost: The average annual value of Fowler’s deal is roughly $10 million more than the Orioles paid their Opening Day right fielder last season (Travis Snider, $2.1M), and about double the salary of their regular right fielder down the stretch (Gerardo Parra, $6.2M). Since Fowler declined a qualifying offer from Chicago, the Orioles will also have to give up their highest remaining pick (29th overall) in this June’s draft.
Despite the cost, Fowler is worth the price for an Orioles team that sorely needed a leadoff hitter and right fielder and that’s clearly in it to win it.