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Fowler signing worth a shot

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MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Angels Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the first Grapefruit League contest is in the books, and the race is on in every spring training camp to win a job on a major league roster.

Among those competing for a spot on the Pirates roster is a bit of a longshot, but he’s certainly a player worth rooting for.

Dustin – not to be confused with Dexter – Fowler was acquired last week from the Oakland A’s after they designated him for assignment. The A’s had to clear a spot on their 40-man roster to make room for free-agent reliever Trevor Rosenthal, and Fowler drew the short straw.

It seems as though the 26-year-old Fowler has been drawing short straws for a while now, ever since a career-altering injury that he sustained just one inning into his major league debut.

The 6-foot, 190-pound Georgia native was chosen in the 18th round of the 2013 draft by the New York Yankees, and he began to establish himself as a legitimate prospect as he made his way up the minor league ladder. He entered the 2017 season as the Yanks’ No. 10-ranked prospect, and he started the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. There, he hit .329 with an .871 OPS in 70 games, homering 13 times, stealing 13 bases and driving in 43 in 297 at-bats.

That earned him a call to the big leagues, and he made his first start June 29, 2017, at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago against White Sox starter James Shields. Fowler, hitting sixth, was on deck when the top of the first ended, and he headed out to right field in the bottom half of the inning.

With two outs and nobody on, Chicago’s Jose Abreu hit a fly ball down the right field line, near the stands. Fowler raced over and crashed into an unpadded electrical box at the railing, rupturing a knee tendon. He was removed from the field on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he underwent surgery.

So much for storybook debuts.

That would end Fowler’s tenure as a Yankee, as the club packaged him with fellow prospects Jorge Mateo and James Kaprielian and sent them to Oakland for Sonny Gray. Fowler was ranked as Oakland’s No. 4 prospect and figured to be the A’s next center fielder. But after hitting just .224 and struggling defensively in 69 games with Oakland in 2018, he failed to make the team in 2019, spending the season at Triple-A Las Vegas. He showed some pop there, hitting 25 homers and driving in 89 runs in 556 at-bats, but those numbers were inflated by both the baseball that was used that season and the Vegas home ballpark. FanGraphs had his wRC+ — runs per plate appearance league- and ballpark-adjusted – at just 93 where 100 is average.

Fowler did not get a big league at-bat in 2020, spending the season at Oakland’s satellite camp.

Now, though, he’s got a fresh start, and given the state of the Pirates’ outfield picture, could earn himself a roster spot. For one thing, outfielder Anthony Alford, whom many had anointed as the presumptive starter in center, apparently is having difficulty throwing as a result of the fractured elbow he sustained in September. Also, Fowler is out of options.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week that Fowler is expected to get a look in both left and right field, although he also said, “We may drift him into center a little bit.”

There’s no telling what lies ahead for Fowler. Perhaps the knee injury, which prompted him to file a civil lawsuit against the White Sox and the entity that operates their ballpark, has robbed him of the skills that made him a top-100 MLB prospect at one time. But adding him to the 40-man roster and giving him a shot in spring training is the type of move I’m all in favor of making. The Pirates did not surrender a player to get Fowler; they sent an undisclosed amount of cash to the A’s. Perhaps they found a bargain and even if they didn’t, nothing was lost.