Pittsburgh Pirates: Making the Case for Dustin Fowler in Center Field


Wednesday evening the Pittsburgh Pirates added another player to the Spring Training competition for center field

Throughout the offseason the Pittsburgh Pirates have been looking for an answer in center field. Originally, it appeared that the Spring Training battle for the job in center field would be between Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva.

The center field battle then changed when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed veteran Brian Goodwin earlier in the month. While Goodwin was signed to a minor league deal, odds are he will crack the Opening Day roster as either the starter in center field or as the team’s fourth outfielder.

Wednesday evening, the center field battle took yet another turn. This occurred when the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired a former top 100 prospect from the Oakland A’s. This former top prospect is outfielder Dustin Fowler.

Fowler was one of the players the A’s acquired when they traded Sonny Gray to the New York Yankees following the 2017 season. In 2018 Fowler had 203 plate appearances in 69 games with the A’s. While Fowler entered the 2018 season as a top 100 prospect he struggled to the tune of a .224/.256/.354 slash line to go with a wRC+ of 67, he also walked at just a 3.9% clip while striking out 23.2% of the time.

At the Triple-A level in 2019 Fowler bounced back from his 2018 MLB struggles. In 130 games played Fowler hit for a .277/.333/.477 slash line. He posted a .200 ISO, a 9.7% extra base hit rate and he hit 25 home runs.

Looking ahead to 2021, Oliva will likely start the season at Triple-A level. Of the three players now competing for the center field job, Oliva is the only one with minor league options remaining. Additionally, playing every day at Triple-A would do more good for Oliva right now than being a bench player on a MLB team.

Conversely, Goodwin appears to be a safe bet to crack the Opening Day roster. This could leave Fowler and Alford battling out for the final outfield spot on the Pirate roster. If this does unfold, there is a strong case to be made for Fowler winning that spot.

Currently, FanGraphs ZIPS projections favor Fowler over Alford. ZIPS projects Fowler to hit for a .251/.290/.417 slash line to go with a 86 wRC+ and an fWAR of 0.6 in 2021. As for Alford, ZIPS projects a .218/.285/.362 slash line, 70 wRC+ and an fWAR of -0.1.

While both Fowler and Alford are former top-100 prospects, Fowler does appear to have the higher ceiling of the two. In his MLB career Fowler has always hit the ball harder with a career 88.3 MPH exit velocity and 40.4% hard hit rate. This is a league average exit velocity and a hard hit rate that is 6% higher than league average.

As for Alford, his career exit velocity is 84.8 MPH and his hard hit rate is 32.7%. His exit velocity is 4 MPH below league average while his hard hit rate is 2% lower than the league average. Hitting the ball hard will lead to success and Fowler is the better player of the two when it comes to this.

It is also obvious that Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and the Pirates have interest in Fowler and see potential in him. If this was not the case, they would not have acquired him from the A’s when he was designated for assignment. This could also increase the odds of the Pirates giving him an extended look and an opportunity in center field.

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Fowler also remains under team control through the 2023 season. Due to this, Fowler could become part of the future for the Pittsburgh Pirates, even if it was just as a bench player. Do not be surprised if Fowler emerges from Spring Training as either the starter in center field for the Pirates, or at least as the team’s fourth outfielder.