Forget it, Kris Bryant fans. The Cubs’ most decorated, powerful prospect didn’t suddenly become part of the team’s Opening Day roster plans just because incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena got shipped out Monday to the Houston Astros.
“It’s totally independent,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of the slugging third base prospect’s timeline in the wake of the trade that landed leadoff-hitting center fielder Dexter Fowler for Valbuena and right-hander Dan Straily.
Hoyer said the deal was about getting Fowler, a switch hitter with a .366 career on-base percentage whom the Cubs have discussed with the Astros since early last month. Sources said the pursuit became more focused after the Cubs’ top target, Ben Zobrist, was dealt by the Tampa Bay Rays to the Oakland Athletics on Jan. 10.
The trade also is about the front office’s new focus on winning now, if not about helping the club walk Anthony Rizzo’s talk of division titles.
“We said all along we want to build a team that’s ready to compete,” Hoyer said. “And I think that comes with making some moves that obviously look different than moves we were making the last three years, when we were focusing very much on control and very much on volume with a look to the future.”
Fowler, 28, is a significant defensive upgrade over converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara, who now could become the kind of super utility player new manager Joe Maddon loves.
Mike Olt, the strikeout-or-homer rookie last year, gets another big opportunity at third in Valbuena’s absence, with Alcantara and promising lefty-hitting second baseman Tommy La Stella possibly joining the mix.
Hoyer said second baseman Javy Baez could get reps at third this spring, especially given that Alcantara and La Stella can handle second. But Hoyer is sensitive to “overloading” Baez, who has a lot of work to do offensively to earn a place in the lineup.
“When we think Kris is ready to come up to the big leagues, we’ll make that decision,” Hoyer said. “But certainly trading Valbuena is not going to speed up that clock at all. It’s all dependent on Kris.”
Fowler hit .276 with a .375 on-base percentage in his lone season with the Astros in 2014, when his hitting coach was current Cubs hitting coach John Mallee.
Fowler helps address the Cubs’ short-term depth concerns in the outfield, along with their need for left-handed options with on-base skills. However, Fowler has been better as a right-handed hitter in his career.
“He controls the strike zone really well,” Hoyer said. “It gives us much needed depth in center field and in the outfield. Hopefully, we get a much more grinding offense going forward.”
The Cubs inherit Fowler’s arbitration case from the Astros. Fowler, in his final year of eligibility, exchanged figures with the Astros last week. He’s seeking $10.8 million, while the club filed for $8.5 million. He made $7.35 million last season.
Hoyer said the Cubs have no immediate plans to explore a multiyear deal with Fowler, whose long-term status with the club could be influenced by the development of outfielders in the farm system.
If Fowler settles on a deal near the midpoint of the arbitration filings, it would push the Cubs’ projected payroll to its ceiling of $120 million ($100 million budget plus $20 million carryover from 2014).
The Cubs are shopping catcher Welington Castillo ($2.1 million) and could move a pitcher such as Travis Wood ($5.685 million) to recoup payroll flexibility.
“We haven’t had any real compelling trade discussions on Welly at this point,” said Hoyer, adding the club is ready to “re-engage” talks if that changes. That’s expected to happen during spring training, when catching-poor clubs get a clearer look at their shortcomings.