The Reds need an outfielder. Maybe two.
Left field has been an issue since Ryan Ludwick injured his shoulder on Opening Day 2013. But it’s not just LF that presents a concern. Billy Hamilton hasn’t proven he can hit major league pitching. And the Reds are trying to trade Jay Bruce.
There are a few internal options, though Walt Jocketty seemed to rule out Jesse Winker this week. (“Winker’s close, but I don’t think he’s ready yet.”) Matt Korte discussed a few options. Adam Duvall was acquired as the second player in the Mike Leake deal. Yorman Rodriguez can’t be sent to the minors without risking a waiver claim. Eugenio Suarez, Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier have been mentioned as position switch candidates. Meh.
The issue with acquiring new outfielders isn’t money. The club will have payroll room, plenty of it. Even before they trade Aroldis Chapman, they have as much as $20 million to spend on new players, if CEO Bob Castellini funds a normal increase in payroll. They’ll save about $12 million more trading Chapman. The Reds are shopping Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, both of whom make 8-figure salaries.
The focus should be squarely on 2017 and beyond, but nothing says they can’t sign a player right now that will help then.
The super-expensive options would be Jason Heyward or Justin Upton. Wick Terrell makes the case for signing Heyward. Those players would require commitments in the range of $160-180 million and 7-8 years.
A less costly option, in terms of years and payroll is Dexter Fowler.
Fowler is a free agent. He played 152 games in center field for the Chicago Cubs last year. All but a handful of plate appearances were from the #1 spot in Joe Maddon’s batting order. The Reds acquiring Dexter Fowler is hardly a new idea (2012, 2014, 2014).
Fowler’s OBP was .346, easily the second highest among Reds starters last year. His isolated power was .161 (17 HR, 29 doubles and 8 triples), roughly the same as Eugenio Suarez.
He really fits. Fowler could hit leadoff for the Reds. Expect a .351 OBP next year, according to the average of two projections (Steamer and Baseball-Reference). Fowler’s career walk-rate is over 12 percent. That’s solid insurance against a dip in batting average. He could play any of the OF positions. Despite his speed, Fowler has never been great defensively. But he battled the defensive metrics to a standstill last year, playing half his games in the Cozy Confines. Fowler’s glove would play in Great American Small Park, whether in left, center or right.
It will take an offer of approximately 4 years and $13 million AAV to sign Fowler. That’s an average of various estimates. The $52 million total cost is less than a third of the commitment to sign Upton or Heyward. The contract would cover Fowler’s age 30-33 seasons.
Signing Dexter Fowler isn’t urgent for the Reds. Comparable players are on the market – Austin Jackson and Denard Span are available and their multi-year contracts should cost less than Fowler’s, although for less production. Another mid-range option, Colby Rasmus, just agreed to accept the qualifying offer from the Astros ($15.8 million) for 2016.
Of course, the Reds can patch and fill with misfits and overmatched players through 2016 and sign a free agent in 2017. If you favor the Reds losing as much as they can in 2016 to improve their draft pick, that’s the course you should prefer.
But Dexter Fowler is a competent outfielder who has sterling on-base skills and double-digit pop. He can be signed at an affordable price with a commitment only through his age 33 season. That works.
Keep in mind that while the Reds may be in the process of unloading players, they can also sign some.