The Cubs continued their wild off-season on Monday, acquiring centerfielder Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros for infielder Luis Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily. The move gives Chicago a dynamic presence atop its lineup as team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer attempt to transforming the team into a true contender in the National League.
In Fowler, the Cubs get a sorely needed upgrade in the leadoff spot, where the team got an unsightly .253/.303/.373 line in 2014, primarily from Emilio Bonifacio and Chris Coghlan. Combined with the struggles of Chicago's No. 2 hitters, that meant a lot of empty bases for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. That won't be the case with Fowler in the fold. The soon-to-be-29-year-old has a career .366 OPB and posted a .375 mark last season, while his walk rates -- 12.5 percent career and 13.1 percent in 2014, ninth-best in baseball -- are also impressive. Those numbers, combined with the speed that has allowed him steal at least 11 bases in each of his six full seasons, should help ignite the Cubs' offense.
Fowler will also take over as the everyday centerfielder in Chicago, moving Arismendy Alcantara into a super-sub role. By most metrics, Fowler is a liability with the glove. Defensive Runs Saved has him at 44 runs below average in center over his career and pegged him with an atrocious -20 mark with Houston, and he's routinely put up negative Ultimate Zone Rating numbers in his big league career as well.
Even with those putrid defensive numbers, though, Fowler still clocked in as a nearly two-win player last season (1.8 Wins Above Replacement by Baseball-Reference's calculations). His presence in centerfield also affords the Cubs a lot of flexibility with Alcantara, who can play all over the outfield and can fill in at second base or shortstop as well.
With Valbuena gone, third base is now open for Chicago. The trio of Alcantara, Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella will reportedly handle the hot corner for the time being, but that triumvirate will likely be a short-lived one, with the team expected to call up top prospect Kris Bryant sometime in May to take over the position. Bryant hit 43 home runs combined at Double and Triple A last season, and his eventual presence, along with the additions of Fowler and new catcher Miguel Montero, plus full seasons from Jorge Soler in rightfield and Javier Baez at second, make it easy to expect the Cubs' lineup to do some serious damage to NL Central pitching staffs all summer long.
As for the Astros, the return for Fowler is a little underwhelming, though it does clear up a murky outfield situation and give them a viable bat at third base. Valbuena, a 29-year-old utilityman, had muddled through six uninspiring seasons for the Mariners, Indians and Cubs before turning in a breakout 2014 campaign on the North Side of Chicago. The Venezuelan infielder posted career highs in OBP (.341), slugging percentage (.435), OPS+ (114), homers (16) and RBIs (51), logging 1.6 WAR in 149 games as the Cubs' regular third baseman. Provided his season wasn't a fluke, he should represent a substantial upgrade at third base for a Houston team that was forced to play Matt Dominguez (.215/.256/.330 in 607 PA) as its starter.
With Fowler gone, the Astros now have the option of moving George Springer from rightfield to center or going with Jake Marisnick as the regular centerfielder. The 23-year-old Marisnick, acquired in a midseason deal with the Marlins, has more big league experience in centerfield, though the 25-year-old Springer played there almost exclusively in the minors before his 2014 callup. Expect Houston to try both players in center throughout spring training and likely have both in the starting lineup, pairing with the recently acquired Evan Gattis in the outfield. Fowler's departure also opens up playing time for Alex Presley and Robbie Grossman, with Presley as the backup centerfielder and Grossman second on the depth chart in the corners.
As for Straily, the 26-year-old righthander has now been traded twice in the last calendar year and ends up back in the AL West after being sent from Oakland to Chicago in the Jeff Samardzija deal last July. After a strong 2013 season that saw Straily throw 152 1/3 innings for the Athletics, he was limited to just 52 innings between Oakland and Chicago, tossing only 13 2/3 frames in seven games (one start) and getting blasted for an 11.85 ERA while with the Cubs. Nonetheless, Straily has posted strong strikeout rates in his brief major league career, albeit tied to some higher-than-you'd-like walk rates, and boasts a plus-slider in his arsenal. He'll likely fight Brad Peacock for the fifth starter role in Houston, and even if Straily loses that spring training battle, he should still be a valuable asset for the Astros going forward.
That cost certainty was likely a big part of Houston's decision to cut ties with Fowler, who will be a free agent after this season. Valbuena has two years of team control remaining, and Straily has six years left before he hits free agency. The deal also saves the Astros $9 million on this year's payroll. But this is a better trade for the Cubs. For the cost of a utility infielder snagged off waivers two years ago and a minor league starter, they got a much-needed table-setter who will make their lineup that much tougher. It's another strong step forward for a Chicago squad that is chasing its first winning season this decade.