Surprise: Dexter Fowler returns to Chicago Cubs
Center fielder Dexter Fowler was one of the most popular players in the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse last year.
So it was no surprise Thursday that Cubs players applauded on the practice field in Mesa, Arizona, when Fowler joined them to say he was back.
The big surprise was that Fowler re-signed in the first place. He looked to be all but signed, sealed and delivered to the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent earlier this week.
But instead of signing for three years with the O's, Fowler took a one-year deal -- plus a mutual-option season -- to return to a team he helped get to the National League championship series last year.
Fowler gets $8 million this year, with the mutual option worth $9 million. There is a $5 million buyout if the Cubs don't exercise their option.
"Surprise," exclaimed Cubs president Theo Epstein to reporters as he announced the stunning deal on what turned out to be a big day for wheeling and dealing in Mesa.
Earlier, the Cubs traded backup outfielder Chris Coghlan to the Oakland Athletics for right-handed pitcher Aaron Brooks. To make room on the 40-man roster for the newcomers, the Cubs placed left-handed reliever Zac Rosscup on the 60-day disabled list with left-shoulder inflammation.
As the primary leadoff hitter last year, Fowler put up a hitting line of .250/.346/.411 with a career high 17 home runs. He drove in 46. His 84 walks and 154 strikeouts also were career highs. In postseason play, Fowler went 10-for-36 (.278) with a pair of homers.
According to reports, Fowler surprised his teammates by showing up while manager Joe Maddon was addressing them.
"I owed it to the boys to tell them first," Fowler told the media. "My heart's here. I feel like the Cubs, they treated me with the utmost respect. With the off-season moves they made, you've got to go with what's comfortable."
Those moves were the signings of free agents Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist.
Fowler added that news that he was signing in Baltimore was premature.
As Epstein put it: "He decided to go for the fit over the money. We're extremely appreciative of that. It means a lot. I think it says a lot about his teammates. It says a lot about Dexter, the manager, the coaching staff here, ownership."
The Fowler re-signing has the potential of changing a lot of things for the Cubs.
As they opened spring training, the plan was for Heyward to play center field. Heyward, who signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs this winter, is a Gold Glove right fielder who spent most of his career in Atlanta before playing for the St. Louis Cardinals last season.
Although Epstein told reporters Heyward could still see time in center, it appears now the Cubs can put Fowler in center and move Heyward to his natural spot in right.
Youngster Jorge Soler was their primary right fielder last year, and the Fowler move could signal a trade of the right-handed-hitting Soler, or it could mean he will share left field with left-handed-swinging slugger Kyle Schwarber.
Coghlan's trade freed $4.8 million in salary and opened up a backup outfield spot.
In Brooks, the Cubs get a 25-year-old righty who was 3-5 with an 8.38 ERA in two seasons with Kansas City and Oakland. The Royals traded him to the A's last season in exchange for Zobrist.
The Cubs originally got Fowler from Houston in a Jan. 19, 2015, trade for pitcher Dan Straily and infielder Luis Valbuena. Fowler was one of several notable free agents who were unsigned as spring training opened.
"Yeah, it's sickening," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said earlier this week. "I do stay in touch with him a lot. I love Dex. It'll work out for him …"
It looks like it worked out for everybody.
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