A day ago, it appeared that the Orioles were about to complete a late-winter one-two punch by adding righthander Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler via a pair of relatively low-cost–three-year deals, bolstering their outfield and rotation at the expense of a pair of top draft picks. But just as they were finalizing their reworked deal with Gallardo to accommodate concerns about his shoulder that turned up in his physical examination, Fowler jilted the O’s in favor of returning to the Cubs via a one-year deal—a shocking turn of events, but one that gives the outfielder a shot at a better deal next winter.
Fowler, who turns 30 on March 22, was traded to the Cubs last January after spending a season with the Astros. Free of injuries and an overstuffed outfield, he set career highs for playing time (690 plate appearances) and home runs (17), batting .250/.346/.411 for a 107 OPS+ and adding 20 steals as well. His -12 Defensive Runs Saved—not an anomaly given his -20 from the year before—cut his value to 2.2 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version), but it was still a solid return for his $9.5 million salary. The deal continued to play dividends into October: Fowler went 3 for 4 with a homer and three runs scored in the wild-card game against the Pirates as part of a .278/.316/.500 showing in 39 postseason plate appearances.
The Cubs gave Fowler a $15.8 million qualifying offer and expected to pocket the draft pick once he signed elsewhere, but in a market filled with outfield options to meet just about every budget, he was slow to find a taker. Meanwhile, Chicago added Jason Heyward via an eight-year, $184 million free-agent deal with the expectation that he would play at least some centerfield, with some combination of Kyle Schwarber and free-agent addition Ben Zobrist or Chris Coghlan in left, and Jorge Soler in right.
In Baltimore, the Orioles appeared to be in need of some extra insurance given an outfield featuring South Korean free-agent signing Hyun-soo Kim in left, with Adam Jones in center and Mark Trumbo in right; first baseman Chris Davis is also able to play the latter position, and Nolan Reimold was among the alternatives at the corners. The signing of Fowler would have put him in right—an unfamiliar position but one requiring less range—and bumped Trumbo to DH at the expense of utility man Jimmy Paredes. It would have also given the team an obvious leadoff hitter ahead of the big bats of third baseman Manny Machado, Davis and Jones.
The Orioles were reported to have reached agreement with Fowler on a three-year deal as of Tuesday afternoon, one valued at $33 million and confirmed by multiple sources, according to MASN's Roch Kubatko, including at least one within the organization who told him, "It's done." Jones, meanwhile, told Kubatko on Wednesday that he had spoken to Fowler, who was en route to Sarasota, Fla. (the site of the Orioles' spring training complex), to take his physical.
That appears to have overstated the case, however, with the completion of the deal apparently breaking down over Fowler's request for an opt-out clause after the first year, allowing him to find a longer-term deal in what should be a weaker free-agent market next winter. Fowler has denied a deal with Baltimore was ever in place, as has Orioles manager Buck Showalter:
Instead of heading to Florida, Fowler turned up (in a surprise orchestrated by Chicago's front office) at the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, Ariz., telling reporters, “This is where my heart is.” His new deal calls for him to make $8 million in 2016, with a $9 million mutual option and $5 million buyout for '17. He's thus guaranteed a minimum of $13 million; he should be worth that alone if he plays well enough to generate another qualifying offer that results in a draft pick.
As for the Orioles, while the signing of Gallardo costs them the 14th pick of June's draft, they'll now keep the 28th pick, which they received via Wei-Yin Chen signing with the Marlins. They'll have to find another way to upgrade their outfield, however, with role players such as Austin Jackson, David Murphy and Will Venable among those still available at low prices if they’re looking outside the organization.
As for the Cubs, the Fowler signing pushes Heyward back to rightfield, where he’s been an elite defender, averaging +20 DRS for the past six seasons, including +24 in 2015, his lone year in St. Louis. The righty-swinging Soler, who was limited to 101 games last year due to a left ankle sprain and an oblique strain, appears to be slated for the short half of a platoon with the lefty-swinging Schwarber.
In addition to landing Fowler, the Cubs cleared out a bit of roster and salary space by trading Coghlan to the Athletics for reliever Aaron Brooks. Coghlan, who turns 31 on June 18, hit .250/.341/.443 with career highs of 16 homers and 1.9 WAR in 2015; he figures to serve as a fourth outfielder in Oakland. Brooks, a 25-year-old righty who split last season between the Royals and A's—a part of the July Zobrist deal, in fact—was rocked for a 6.71 ERA in 51 innings and is likely bound for Triple A to start the season.