The A's are coming off their worst two year stretch in their 49 year Oakland history. During that two year period, they have almost stealthily retooled their roster to create a promising core of young, high upside, cost-controlled pitching and infield prospects. Many of these prospects made their major league debut in 2016 (Sean Manaea, Ryon Healy, Joey Wendle, Bruce Maxwell, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Mengden, Chad Pinder, et al.) and still others of even higher potential impact could be on the way in 2017 (Matt Chapman, Franklin Barreto). Add in ultra-high-upside arms in the system such as Frankie Montas, A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes, and you see a real framework for a breakout back to competitiveness in the coming years.
However, you don't get to the A's lack of performance of the last two years without significant gaps in the organization. The key for the A's maximizing their potential in the coming years, is nailing additions that supplement and fit well with the current and upcoming young talent. Whether via free agency or trade (or likely both), the A's will need to fill in gaps around what they have in-house.
So where are the gaps and how do they fill them?
The A's needs have been discussed significantly on this site and there is one free agent in the current class who checks the boxes far more than any other single free agent on the market. That man is World Series champion Dexter Fowler.
Need #1: Good Outfielders
Aside from 42 HR LF Khris Davis, the A's have gaping holes in the outfield. This goes for both the MLB club and the high minors. They don't have answers in-house to solve the outfield problem. Dexter Fowler checks this box, clearly. Fowler was the every day CF for the World Champion Cubs. While Fowler has been just about an average CF defender in his career, an average defensive CF represents a huge upgrade for the A's vs. what we saw in 2016. Fowler held down CF for the Cubs, who ranked at or near the top in all defensive metrics in 2016. He was a stable rock in CF for a great team.
While Fowler will be turning 31 this season and his deal is projected at a four year pact (ages 31-34), these represent late-prime years, and not over the hill. Fowler would provide a measurable defensive upgrade in the OF and, additionally, flexibility. Say the A's secure an ace defensive CF, the A's could slide Fowler to a corner and he would certainly be a plus in that role. Or the A's could target a true RF and keep Fowler in CF, where he has played his entire career with great success.
Plain and simple, Fowler would check the box of a good outfielder, which is THE need for the A's heading into 2017 and beyond.
Need #2: A Leadoff Hitter
The A's leadoff position was a disaster in 2016. Billy Burns forgot how to hit. 36 year old Coco Crisp was well on the down side, had a chronic neck condition, and was a better fit off the bench - as he was used once traded to the World Series runner up Indians. Joey Wendle gave a great effort, but he is a bottom third of the order guy at the MLB level. The A's had no leadoff man in 2016 and, like the OF notes above, there is no clear option - aside from possibly Barreto - in the high minors. Barreto himself, may be better suited for the two spot in the order, or even the bottom portion to take the pressure off when he first breaks in, which is likely not until late-2017 or even 2018.
The A's leadoff position is a gaping hole and Dexter Fowler just happened to be the table setter for the best team in baseball in 2016. Sign Fowler and he slots in as the leadoff hitter for as far as the eye can see. Fowler checks the leadoff hitter need box to a T.
Need #3: On Base Ability
The A's were last in the AL in on base percentage in 2016. They did not have table setters for boppers such as Davis and Healy. Too many of the HRs were of the solo variety.
Fowler would check this box as well. Atop the Cubs lineup, Fowler put up an impeccable .393 OBP in 2016 in 551 plate appearances. His career mark is a strong .366, 2016 was not a fluke year. Fowler hits for a good average (.276 in 2016 and .268 carer) and knows how to work the count and draw a walk. Both skill sets are seriously in need for the Oakland Athletics.
And a major bonus on this skill is that Fowler is a switch hitter who does not need a platoon partner to maximize his contribution. In 2016, his OPS was .827 vs. RHPs and .876 vs. LHPs. He can get on base and set the table regardless of the opposing arm slot.
That is major need #3 checked.
Need #4: Veteran Leadership (and fun)
The A's have had locker room issues the last two years. They have also been very bad the last two years. Which begets which? It is a chicken and egg phenomenon. But it has certainly been an issue.
Fowler was one of the few veteran position players the last two years on a very young Cubs team. He has already been in the role of veteran on a young, rising team. The A's may not be the Cubs, of course, but there are legit parallels. The A's will be breaking in many young and talented players. They need their veterans to be guys who give a good example of how to approach the game.
Fowler is the ideal veteran for this role. He is proven in the role on a similarly youthful team. Fowler exudes charisma and a great combo of joy for the game combined with serious professional focus.
The 6 foot 5 Fowler would be the perfect leadership type for the A's young players to look up to both literally and figuratively. Yet again, a box that Fowler checks.
Need #5: Excitement
Let's face it, the last two years have been very depressing to the Athletics' broad fan base. While the losing has allowed a certain amount of "rebuild-on-the-fly" to take place with higher draft picks and trades of veterans for prospects, it has also been really harsh to see a playoff team (2012-14) fall to the bottom of the pack so rapidly and completely. With the many challenges the organization faces in building and maintaining market share in the large (and competitive) Bay Area sports marketplace, bringing in a well-known, charismatic, frankly fun to watch, signature free agent would be a coup in terms of public relations. Fowler would be a model in terms of giving the fan base something to get excited about other than hoping the next prospect pans out. Fowler would certainly bring some much-needed buzz, especially as the A's look to finally solve their long-running stadium problem.
Make that five KEY boxes checked by one player.
Really the only drawback is the cost in cash to acquire Fowler. MLBtraderumors.com projects Fowler to secure a contract of four years and $64 million. This would represent the largest contract the A's have given out to a player since Eric Chavez signed a 6 year $66 million deal in 2004 (seriously guys? 6 years $66 mil, that is a jinx set of numbers if I have ever seen one). As an aside, the fact that Chavez' deal is still the largest in franchise history a full dozen years after it was signed, with the inflation in baseball salaries around the league, is pretty mind boggling.
So, yes, the money would be large and the commitment longer term than the A's have shown in the recent past. There would be a certain amount of risk and the A's have small room to spare on the risk side.
However, two things overcome this drawback to me:
1. The A's payroll commitment is very low. The current projected 2017 commitment is under $60 million including arbitration projections and pre-arb players, while only Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle have guaranteed contracts beyond this year (Cott's). Not to mention Billy Butler's $10 million will fall off the payroll after 2017. Fowler's deal is large for A's standards, but it is easy to fit into even the A's recent baseline budget with room to spare.
2. When looking at a larger cost veteran signing, I am looking for boxes being checked. The last big signing was the failed Billy Butler experiment. Why did this fail? Butler only checked a very marginal box (right handed hitting). He could not play defense, he brought negative roster flexibility, he was not a leader, he did not excite the fan base, he could not run. He was not a box checker. I am in favor of giving the larger contracts to players who clearly check multiple boxes, such as noted above for Dexter Fowler
While it may still be a long shot that the A's brass would go after and be able to land Dexter Fowler, the position here is they should make it a priority. Out of all the free agents on the marketplace, he fits the most needs and helps reposition the franchise most effectively. Fowler would provide fielding, batting, running, leadership and marketplace improvements, while costing no more than an early 2nd round pick and cash. To secure a comparable player via trade, the A's will need to give up some of what makes them exciting for the future - their prospects. And by signing one good OF, the A's will be able to turn trade attention to filling just one other OF spot, and other roster holes, rather than needing to trade for two starting OFs.
Further, while the QO pick cost is not ideal, it actually could play in the A's favor on the marketplace, as other teams may be hesitant to give up a first round pick to sign Fowler (as they were last year, where he eventually returned to Chicago on a one year deal). Many teams who may consider Fowler would actually be giving up a higher pick than the A's, as the A's #6 pick is protected. The A's would project to give up a pick in the 30s or 40s. These are guys like Logan Shore or recently acquired Paul Blackburn, who are nice to have, but not franchise difference makers.
To close it up, Dexter Fowler is the biggest free agent splash that makes the most sense for the A's heading into 2017 and beyond. Sometimes you gotta go big to put it all together. Maybe this is the positive surprise the A's franchise - and fan base - needs.