For about 36 hours back towards the start of spring training, the Orioles had everything figured out. Their dream leadoff hitter fell into their laps, a switch-hitting outfielder capable of getting on base at a good clip, good against righties and better against lefties, with a decent amount of speed.
That was what things looked like for a day and a half in late February, then Dexter Fowler showed up in Arizona instead of Florida, making a surprise announcement that he was re-signing with the Cubs instead. The abrupt reversal was something more out of the pages of professional wrestling than baseball.
Here we are heading towards the end of August. The Orioles are the worst team by OPS against lefties in the American League. As a team, they are 30th in all of MLB in stolen bases with 14, exactly half of the number of the 29th-ranked team. The average team has stolen four times as many bases.
The outfield defense, particularly in right field, is suspect because it has been filled chiefly by players who should be limited to first base or designated hitter. This has cost the team runs, and games, as recently as Sunday’s loss to the Astros, when a Chris Davis right field botch led to two runs scoring in a game the Orioles went on to lose by two.
Everyone needs another good outfielder
It’s been hard not to gaze wistfully at Fowler’s 2016 performance and wonder how the Orioles might have turned out if he had been here instead. This is especially true because Fowler started off the season so hot that he was one of the players everybody was talking about, batting .347/.474/.613 in 21 April games.
Even with a slump in June and a trip to the disabled list, Fowler has come out looking very good. He’s worth either 3.2 or 3.3 Wins Above Replacement, depending on which site you check, as you would expect for a guy playing center field with acceptable defensive ratings and an .853 OPS.
There’s no perfect way to gauge how the presence of Fowler might have impacted the Orioles. After all, it’s no guarantee that he would have accumulated the same batting numbers when in a different lineup, facing different pitchers in a different league entirely.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether, in a butterfly effect kind of way, Fowler being on the roster and in the lineup might have disrupted something that’s been working out well for the Orioles.
Fowler seems like he would have been the leadoff hitter, which is fine. Yet the Orioles, improbably, have turned out OK in that spot in the order, with Adam Jones batting .299/.333/.513 in 76 games in the leadoff spot heading into Monday’s action. That’s an .846 OPS, not far off what Fowler has done.
Does Jones do as well in a different place in the lineup? Maybe he does. It’s easy to assume he would have, but you never really know.
Would Fowler have replaced someone important?
Having Fowler around would have changed the Orioles roster picture at the end of spring training, as well. While the best case scenario would be one where Fowler is on the roster and Nolan Reimold (.680 OPS overall, .563 OPS vs. LHP) is not, with other players playing time shuffled accordingly, that is not how it would have likely worked out.
What would have probably happened is that Fowler being around would have meant the Orioles never signed Pedro Alvarez. The money would not have been there, even if the interest still was. They might have even been forced into cost-cutting measures beyond the premature release of Miguel Gonzalez and the irritating Brian Matusz salary dump trade.
With the mighty slump in which Alvarez was mired in the early part of the season, having Fowler rather than him was an easy choice. Fowler had a .967 OPS at the end of May. Alvarez’s was a paltry .644. Heading into Monday’s games, however, Alvarez, with an .842 OPS, is not far from Fowler’s season to date.
If we suppose Fowler would go into right field, popping Mark Trumbo to designated hitter, that’s still a positive overall, but keep in mind that adding Fowler likely would mean subtracting something that has worked out OK for the O’s.
Maybe with Fowler on the team, the Orioles would have even been less likely to be patient with Hyun Soo Kim after Kim’s spring training problems and refusal to accept a minor league demotion. The team would simply be less fun with no Kim around - and Kim, by the way, has six points of OBP on Fowler, though Fowler has played more and hit for more power.
Fowler, with “only” eight stolen bases - still double the four that Joey Rickard, the leading Oriole, has stolen, mind you - wouldn’t exactly have single-handedly changed the Orioles into a speedy team. Nor would he have needed to do so.
Get down with OBP
A guy who gets on base at a .393 clip and then is on first base to maybe get homered in by Davis, Trumbo, or Manny Machado would still help the team out quite a lot. That is exactly what they needed. So is a guy hitting to an .897 OPS against lefties.
Both of those are things where he could make a huge difference in an area where the Orioles are deficient. Dang it, Fowler! Why did you have to go back to the Cubs?
If you’d asked me about this a couple of weeks ago, I would have surely said, no, I wouldn’t want to change anything about the first place Orioles, certainly not with their great offense. They were getting along just fine without Fowler until two weeks ago... then they lost 3-2, 2-1, and 1-0 games in Oakland. Good grief.
Even if they had Fowler and Fowler was doing just as well in Baltimore, the O’s surely wouldn’t be running away with the division by double digits like the Fowler-having Cubs are doing. They’d still need a real starting rotation to do that.
The Orioles would have been better off with Fowler than without him, though. Which they knew back in February. That’s why they got so close to signing him that some people in the organization thought he was signed. Then there he was in Arizona, brandishing that folding steel chair, revealing he’d been wearing a Cubs jersey all along.
The WWE could hardly script a better heel turn, at least as far as Orioles fans are concerned. The O’s have gotten where they’ve gotten without Fowler, and they’ll have to get wherever they’re going without him. Maybe that will even turn out to be a good thing. The season is not over yet.