Rozner: Fowler presents nice dilemma for Cubs, Epstein
Theo Epstein has problems.
And as my grandmother used to say, "We should all have such problems."
Of the many surprises in 2016, there might be none bigger for the Cubs than the return of Dexter Fowler a week into spring training, following a long and complicated flirtation with the Baltimore Orioles.
But Fowler's arrival turned out to be huge for the Cubs, especially after they lost Kyle Schwarber for the season, and Fowler has been a key component for the Cubs on both sides of the ball.
Consider a team that went into Saturday's game in Colorado at 33 games over .500 and was an ugly 11-17 while Fowler was on the disabled list, coinciding with the Cubs worst stretch of the season from mid-June to mid-July.
Among National League center fielders, Fowler is second in WAR and trails only Colorado's Charlie Blackmon, who has 100 more at-bats.
Fowler leads NL center fielders in on-base percentage, is second in walks and third in OPS.
Among leadoff hitters in the National League, Fowler is first in on-base, second in walks, second in OPS and third in runs.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is fond of saying to Fowler that, "When you go, we go."
This has been true in 2016.
So it begs the question of whether the Cubs have to seriously consider a long-term deal for Fowler after the season, or maybe even before that.
Fowler wasn't supposed to come back in 2016, and when he did he was supposed to be a bridge to Albert Almora, who spent six weeks with the big-league club and did not look out of place before returning to the minors when Fowler came off the disabled list.
But Fowler has been so good -- and so crucial to the Cubs' success -- that it would make any general manager ponder the future without him.
Fowler signed for $8 million in 2016 and has a mutual option worth $9 million for 2017, an option Fowler will certainly decline. Depending on the new CBA and what occurs with qualifying offers, at the moment it appears as if Fowler will have considerable value on the open market.
But he will be also be 31 next Opening Day and the Cubs have a 22-year-old in Almora waiting to take the job. Almora was Epstein's first draft pick in Chicago -- No. 6 overall in 2012 -- and the Cubs have not been shy in expressing their happiness with Almora's development.
Fowler makes the offense work, but the Cubs think Almora is a star in the making.
Meanwhile, Jason Heyward is the right fielder for the next several years at $21 million annually, regardless of his struggles in 2016. He has opt-outs after 2018 and 2019, but that's a conversation for another day.
The question at hand is how can the Cubs let Fowler walk when he's so valuable, and how can they keep him when they have such a logjam of young players?
If Fowler plays center next year with Heyward in right, that leaves left field available for Schwarber, Almora, Jorge Soler and Ben Zobrist, assuming Kris Bryant is at third and Javier Baez is at second -- where those two ought to be playing every day -- and Willson Contreras behind the plate.
That is the biggest impediment to Fowler returning, the large number of young players ready to play in the big leagues and needing a spot on the field, with more players getting ready to make the jump in the next couple years.
In order to keep those young players motivated and excited about the future, you have to keep promoting players when they've earned the right to be here, and the Cubs have obviously done a terrific job of that the last two years.
At the same time, it gives them plenty of assets to deal when they need to fill holes.
So that's the dilemma for Epstein. He'd be crazy if he didn't want to keep Fowler based on his production, but Fowler's age scares you away from a long-term deal when there are so many young, talented players desperate to get on the field.
All in all, pretty good problems to have.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.