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Could Dexter Fowler Still Be An Orioles Offseason Target?

October 17, 2016
At the Orioles' year-end news conference with manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette Oct. 6, there were a few interesting talking points. However, there may have been none more interesting than the acknowledgement by Showalter that outfielder Adam Jones would not be the team's leadoff hitter in 2017.

Trust me, I get that after the first inning, the leadoff batter rarely leads off another inning in that day's game. But still, that's 162 at-bats. You'd like the guy at the top of the order to have a good chance of igniting the next eight men to score a run or two right out of the gate.

In order to do just that -- especially when your team has power hitters in just about every spot, save for outfielder Hyun Soo Kim at No. 2 -- you want the leadoff batter to have a high on-base percentage. That's Baseball Logic 101.

Jones has a .277 career average and .318 OBP through 1,394 games and 5,740 at-bats. That is who he is, with on-base ability the one area keeping him in the “very good, but not great” category. Jones did a respectable job as the leadoff man in 2016, with a .292 average and .331 OBP when leading off any inning -- a good tick higher than his career averages. 

But still, Showalter has determined his day-to-day lineup will be better served with Jones in a more typical, run-producing place: No. 5 or 6 in the Orioles' 2017 order.

So now that we know the leadoff hitter won't be Jones, who will it be?

Let's keep in mind, in the same season-ending news conference a year ago, Duquette specified needing to improve the team's OBP from .307 in 2015, the lowest of Duquette's tenure. With the additions of Kim (.382) and Rule V outfielder Joey Rickard (.319), the Orioles improved their OBP to .317 in 2016, the highest in Duquette's tenure. 

But really, his teams have never had a sufficient OBP: .311 in 2012, .313 in 2013 and .311 in 2014.

Let's be clear, guys who get on base a lot don't exactly grow on trees, and the other 29 teams are all looking for them as well.

That's why one of the harder things to watch in the MLB postseason this October is Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler leading off and perhaps taking Joe Maddon's team to the Promised Land. Fowler has a .366 career OBP, something the Orioles showed they valued greatly when they made a run at signing Fowler in February. 

All Fowler did atop the Cubs' batting order in 2016 is get on base at a .393 clip and score 84 runs in 125 games (a hamstring injury June 18 forced him to miss 29 games). In 2015, even with a .250 batting average and .344 OBP, Fowler scored 102 runs. You'd have to go all the way to 2009, when former Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts finished his third consecutive season with 100 runs or more, to find leadoff production of that caliber in Baltimore.

You may recall in February, reports surfaced Fowler was going to sign with the Orioles on a three-year $33 million deal. But just one day later, Fowler turned on the O's and showed up at Cubs camp to surprise his teammates with a one-year, $9 million contract for 2016, carrying a mutual $9 million option with a $5 million buyout, essentially guaranteeing he would make $14 million for one season in Chicago.

Three years at $33 million was not a chump-change offer from Duquette. It was a significantly larger commitment than the one-year deal Nelson Cruz got in 2014. However, Duquette quite possibly could have had Fowler signed and in Sarasota, Fla., had he allowed the desired opt-out after one season or upped the ante to $13 or $14 million per year for three years.

Instead, Duquette stood on his stated principal of not allowing opt-outs, and the Orioles had no Fowler. With an offense that all too often fizzled through the second half of 2016, and suspect right field defense from Mark Trumbo, that void was readily apparent.

At the end of this World Series cycle, Fowler's one-year option is mutual, so he can leave and join free agency to fish for a larger contract. If I were Duquette, I'd look into a straight three-to-four-year deal with Fowler at the going rate, rather than trying the lower end of the range and not allowing an opt-out.

If the Orioles fail to address their leadoff hole this offseason, they could look to Kim. While the left-handed hitting Kim is not the overall lineup igniter Fowler can be, due to his lack of speed, his .382 OBP is much more in-line with what the O's need in the 65-70 percent of games started by right-handed pitchers (for the record, 46 of 162 games against the Orioles were started by lefties in 2016). However, if they stay as presently constituted, Kim's 0-17 versus left-handed pitching probably means there will be somewhat of a platoon at leadoff, with right-handed hitting Rickard facing lefties. 

Issue 226: October 2016