Name: Dustin Fowler
Height/Weight: 6’0’’, 195
Acquired: Acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees on July 31, 2017.
A dream season quickly turned into a nightmare for Dustin Fowler, who suffered a horrific knee injury during the first inning of his major league debut. Traded to the Oakland A’s a month later, Fowler is healthy and poised to return to the big leagues with Oakland. Can he carve out a role as the A’s everyday centerfielder?
When Fowler had to be carted off the field in the bottom of the first of his major-league debut, he invoked the memory of Adam Greenberg, who was hit in the head with the first pitch he saw in a major league game. Thanks to an online petition, Greenberg would eventually get one more at-bat in the big leagues, but his career was never the same after the injury. The A’s are hopeful that Fowler’s big league story has a much different ending.
Fowler made his major league debut on June 29 with the Yankees after hitting .293/.329/.542 in 70 games for Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He was in the starting lineup as the Yankees’ right-fielder and was due up to hit in the top of the second. He never got that at-bat. While aggressively pursuing a foul ball down the line at Guaranteed Rate Field, Fowler crashed into the low wall in foul territory. His right knee struck an electrical box on the wall and he suffered an open rupture of his patella tendon. Fowler had to be carted off of the field.
Knee injuries as severe as Fowler’s aren’t particularly common in baseball, so there were concerns about how the speedy outfielder would recover. The A’s were willing to take on the risk of acquiring him mid-recovery when they worked out a deal with the Yankees that sent Sonny Gray to New York and Fowler, Jorge Mateo and James Kaprielian to Oakland.
Although it is too early to know what the long-term ramifications of the injury will be for Fowler, the short-term returns have been positive. He completed his rehab this month and made his A’s spring training debut on Sunday, playing centerfield and collecting a hit and a walk in three plate appearances.
If Fowler returns to form, he could make a significant difference for an A’s team that has struggled to find consistent production in centerfield since Coco Crisp began to decline in 2015.
An 18th-round pick of the Yankees in 2013 out of West Laurens HS in Dexter, Georgia, Fowler signed with New York to an over-slot bonus of $278,000. A former high school football player and wrestler, Fowler was considered a raw prospect coming out of high school, but the Yankees were able to sharpen the edges of his game fairly quickly.
After a mediocre pro debut in 2013, Fowler spent the first part of the 2014 season at Extended Spring Training. He joined Low-A Charleston in mid-May and would spend the rest of the season with the RiverDogs. He missed time with injury on two separate occasions. Fowler hit for power during his 60 games with the RiverDogs (.459 SLG), but he hit only .257 with a .292 OBP.
Fowler returned to Charleston at the start of the 2015 season and he immediately showed significant improvement at the plate. In 58 games, he hit .307 with a .340 OBP. That earned Fowler a midseason promotion to High-A Tampa, where he hit .289 with a .328 OBP in the pitcher-friendly league. Between the two teams, he hit .298/.334/.394 with 30 stolen bases.
Fowler continued to improve in 2016 with Double-A Trenton. He again hit for average (.281) and hit for more power, homering a career-high 12 times in 132 games. Going into the 2017 season, Fowler was ranked as the Yankees’ ninth-best prospect. He improved his stock during his 70 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, positioning himself to be one of the young players the Yankees were counting on for their late-season run to the playoffs. After the trade, A’s GM David Forst admitted he didn’t think Fowler would have been available for the A’s to acquire had he not gotten hurt.
When healthy, Fowler is a dynamic offensive player who can make an impact with the bat and with his legs. A’s first base coach Al Pedrique was Fowler’s manager in Scranton in 2017. Pedrique raved about Fowler’s work ethic and the impact he had on his club both at the plate and in the field. He said Fowler could slot anywhere from lead-off to sixth in a line-up with his ability to handle the bat and turn on a pitch and drive it into the gap.
Over the past two seasons, Fowler has seen a significant increase in his power production. Not surprisingly, he has also seen a significant increase in his flyball and line-drive rates as well as a dramatic reduction in his groundball rate. In 2017, he hit only 34% of his balls in play on the ground. He used the whole field well but saw the majority of his home runs go out to the pullside.
A left-handed hitter, Fowler has hit southpaws well over the past two seasons, an indication that he can be an everyday player and not just a platoon partner. Before the injury, Fowler was an above-average runner. Assuming his speed remains the same, he should be able to remain in centerfield. He has improved his routes and his throwing each year as a pro and was an above-average defender last season.
If everything goes the way the A’s and Fowler hope it will, Fowler will never play a day in the A’s minor league system. They will give him every opportunity to win the starting centerfield job this spring. He has minor league options remaining, so if Fowler does struggle, the A’s can send him back to Triple-A for more seasoning.
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