Not A Rookie: Dexter Fowler
Dexter Fowler was drafted in the 14th round in 2004, out of high school in Alpharetta, Georgia. His draft position was deceptive: he could have gone as high as the supplemental round due to his tools and exceptional makeup, but college options made his signability doubtful. He could have played baseball at Miami or basketball at Harvard, and no one was sure if he was willing to put those aside to play pro ball. The Rockies ended up signing him for $925,000, though it was too late for him to make his pro debut that summer. Colorado found the money to sign him after the organization traded Larry Walker.
Fowler began his career with 62 games for Casper in the Pioneer League in 2005. He hit .273/.357/.409 with 18 steals, 27 walks, and 73 strikeouts in 220 at-bats. Offensively, he showed speed and scouts identified some power potential, but his plate discipline needed work and his bat was considered raw. His defense drew very positive reviews. I gave him a Grade C in the 2006 book, noting that Fowler had a high ceiling but needed more polish.
Promoted to full-season Asheville in the Sally League for '06, Fowler hit .296/.373/.462, with 43 walks and 79 strikeouts in 405 at-bats along with 43 steals. He made progress refining his swing and showed improved command of the zone, with a much lower strikeout rate compared to '05. He continued to draw positive comment for his defense, work ethic, and intelligence. I moved him up to a Grade B in the '07 book, impressed with the combination of a lower strikeout rate with better power production.
2007 was a weaker campaign. He hit .273/.397/.367 for Modesto in the California League, limited to 65 games by a broken hand. His power declined, but on the other hand he almost doubled his walk rate, drawing 44 in just 245 at-bats. Scouts quibbled about his swing mechanics cutting into his power production. I lowered his grade slightly to a Grade B- in the '08 book, concerned about the drop in power, though I was intrigued with the boost in walks.
Sent to Double-A Tulsa for 2008, Fowler had a breakthrough campaign with a .335/.431/.515 mark, drawing 65 walks against 89 strikeouts in 421 at-bats, setting career-best marks in every offensive category except steals. He continued to impress scouts with his defense, brightness, and friendly personality. He struggled during a brief trial in the majors (4-for-26) but no one was concerned given the small sample size. In the 2009 book I wrote that Fowler probably needed "some Triple-A time, but he is a rare player who combines excellent tools with a good shot at having excellent skills as well. . .he should combine a strong batting average with a high OBP, plenty of speed, moderate power, and a terrific glove." I gave him a Grade A- entering the '09 season.
Fowler didn't get the Triple-A time that I recommended, jumping straight to the Rockies in 2009, playing 135 games. He posted a .266/.363/.406 line, with 29 doubles, 10 triples, but just four homers. He drew 67 walks against 433 at-bats, with 116 strikeouts. He swiped 27 bases but was caught 10 times. He proved an adept bunter with 14 sacrifices.
Fowler's hitting was perhaps a tad less than I expected. He had a strong home/road split (.818 OPS at home, .717 on the road), and he also had a strong platoon split (.729 OPS against lefties, .859 against right-handers). He struck out a lot for a guy who doesn't hit many homers. Despite these issues, I remain optimistic about his bat in the long run. He was making the jump to the majors directly from Double-A, and he wasn't overwhelmed by the experience. He retained a good walk rate, and I expect that his power will gradually increase. The long-term outlook for his bat remains the same: at his peak he'll have a strong combination of OBP, speed, and moderate power. My expectation is that he'll stay about the same or improve very slightly this year and in 2011, but starting in 2012 his hitting will take off.
What I'm not certain about is the defense. His minor league defensive reviews from scouts were always excellent, but his UZR was awful last year and that situation will have to be monitored. I didn't see enough Rockies games to get a good feel with what was going on with his glove, if there was a statistical illusion of some kind going on. He did have some injury problems last year, including nagging back and knee problems that may have hampered his mobility. If the range assessments remain poor in '10, a switch to left field should be considered. His arm won't be good enough for right. You can read more about the UZR issue for Fowler in this fanpost.
Overall, despite some rough spots with the bat and the sabermetric questions about his glove, I like Fowler a lot and consider him to be a bright light for the future.