MESA, Ariz. – Before the Cubs started one of their spring training drills Thursday morning, manager Joe Maddon called the team together in the middle of a practice diamond and said they were about to have a “moment.”
“I thought for sure it was some circus animal or some weird magician,” pitcher Jason Hammel said.
He got the weird part right.
In a move only slightly less shocking than the Cubs’ 97-win run to the playoffs last year, clubhouse favorite Dexter Fowler suddenly appeared, walking onto the field with team president Theo Epstein.
“I didn’t know what to think,” catcher David Ross said. “ `Did he come back to say bye?’ “
“It beat out the [circus animal],” Hammel said.
Talk about a magic trick.
Players yelled and mobbed Fowler with hugs and handshakes as they learned the Cubs had managed to snatch the free agent center fielder away from the Baltimore Orioles – who supposedly already had reached agreement with him to a three-year, $33 million deal, according to news reports that broke Tuesday night.
“It was pretty spectacular,” Maddon said of Thursday’s scene.
When told almost everybody in Mesa believed he was in Baltimore, Fowler paused, smiled, and said: “Catfished.”
The Cubs’ 2015 leadoff hitter never accepted the Orioles’ latest offer, he said, and had “no clue” where the reports came from.
His agent, Casey Close, issued a statement Thursday blasting the Orioles for leaks and media for being “complicit.”
Instead, he rejected more than one multiyear offer to eventually accept a $13 million one-year deal to return to the Cubs after enduring a long, frustrating free agency process. The contract pays him $8 million in base salary in 2016 and includes a $9 million mutual option for 2017 (with a $5 million buyout).
To help make the deal work within the team’s payroll limits, the Cubs traded outfielder Chris Coghlan ($4.8 million salary) to the Oakland Athletics Thursday morning for young starting pitcher Aaron Brooks, 25.
“This is where my heart was,” said Fowler, whose free agency was complicated by the qualifying-offer system that cost any team signing him a draft pick. “I feel like the Cubs treated me with the utmost respect, and with the offseason moves they made, you’ve got to go with what’s comfortable.”
Epstein said this ends the Cubs’ offseason activity.
“That’s it. We’re not trading anyone else,” he said. “That’s the move. And we feel great about our outfield mix.”
The most bizarre part of the deal was that the Cubs were able keep media and even their own players in the dark while coming to terms, bringing Fowler into Arizona Wednesday for a physical and eventually closing simultaneous transactions Thursday – all as Baltimore media, and even Orioles players, mused publicly about Fowler’s imminent arrival as their new right fielder.
“Surprise!” Epstein said before taking media questions Thursday.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo, one of Fowler’s closest friends on the team last year, wondered why he hadn’t heard from the outfielder after texting congratulations for the alleged Orioles deal.
“He big-leagued me,” Rizzo said, smiling. “I’m just super excited to have him [back].”
Fowler, whose big second half last year was a key to the Cubs’ surge to the playoffs, called the reception after his grand entrance Thursday “surreal.”
“It’s like you’re walking back to the house, and it feels like you haven’t been home in 10 years,” he said.
The signing improves an outfield that figured to lean on young, raw defenders in the corners and a Gold Glove right fielder in center.
Jason Heyward, the $184 million free agent, now will move back to his comfort zone in right for most games. Second-year right-fielder Jorge Soler will get reps in left field and is expected to share playing time there with Kyle Schwarber, likely playing right when Heyward shifts to center for some games.
Maddon, who learned about the deal when he was advised not to text Fowler about the Orioles reports, suggested Fowler might rotate to the bench at times this season (he played 156 games last year) as Maddon works various bats into the mix.
Fowler, who turns 30 next month, stressed the attraction of returning to friends and the unfinished business the Cubs are trying to take care of.
“I do live in Vegas, “Fowler said. “You see up there all the time, `Cubs 4:1 [odds to win the World Series]’ So it’s an exciting time to be a Cub. Definitely a good time to win.”