Furcal in 2010 with the Dodgers.
Thanks to their sudden (and unwanted), financial windfall, the Cardinals' find themselves in a position of having a big pile of Albert Pujols
cash sitting around and missing a big pile of Albert Pujols production.
John Mozeliak and Co. started the process of trying to spend that cash to replace that production over the weekend, inking Rafael Furcal to a two-year deal worth a reported $14 million, ensuring the club will open stronger at shortstop in 2012 than they did in 2011, when Ryan Theriot was brought in to replace the banished Brendan Ryan.
Furcal had expressed strong interest in returning to the Cardinals -- not particularly surprising, considering the sort of success the team had in his brief time wearing the Birds on the Bat, but there was some thought he might get a longer deal of three years guaranteed from some other team looking to upgrade their middle infield. That deal didn't materialize, though, and the Cards were ultimately able to keep Furcal in the fold.
Two years is a good length for this contract, and that annual average value isn't exorbitant either. Furcal represented a significant upgrade over Theriot defensively, and while he didn't exactly light the world on fire with the stick, he has the capability to hit much better than we saw in 2011.
Actually, that's not quite right. Let me rephrase: Furcal used to have the capacity for offensive success. Oh, and he used to be a good fielder. He was actually neither one in 2011 (though still worlds better with the glove than Theriot, the middle infield equivalent of a late-term abortion), which brings us to the concerns everyone should have about this contract.
Now, here's the good part: the Cardinals could have had Furcal for two years and fourteen million dollars. Or, they could have had Jimmy Rollins for at least four years, maybe five, and probably close to that fourteen million dollar number, only per annum instead of for the whole deal. Think I'm joking on Rollins? Just wait. Ruben Amaro, the Phillies' GM, wants to resign Rollins but bad and doesn't believe aging is an actual thing.
Just looking at what was on the market, the Cards did well to pick Furcal back up on a reasonable deal. (Still wish Jose Reyes had been on the market, but whatever. That ship has sailed.) Paying Furcal to play at 34 and 35 isn't ideal, but it's quite a bit better than paying Rollins until he's 38.
On the other hand, you have to wonder just how much Furcal has left in the tank. Last season was the worst of his career, and it isn't hard to look at him and see a player finally losing the race against time and injury.
The two areas Furcal really cratered in 2011 were average and defense. He was over half a win below average (-.5.4 runs), by UZR, and posted the lowest batting average of his career at .231. Neither of those numbers represents the kind of player you want to be paying for at all, much less $7 million a year.
Luckily for us, the batting average at least looks as if it should come up significantly. Furcal's batting average on balls in play in 2011 was just .240, well below his career figure of .313. Of course, that could be attributed to him simply not hitting the ball hard any longer, but his line drive rate, while a shade lower than his career average at 18.2%, was plenty solid enough to generate a better BABIP than what he actually ended up with. If Rafael Furcal hits exactly the same in 2012 as he did in 2011, his numbers should look better just thanks to a more normal BABIP.
The defense, well, that's a little more worrisome. Furcal was a positive fielder in both 2009 and 2010, but that does not in any way mean 2011 was just an anomaly. Injuries which reduce a player's mobility, such as -- ahem -- back or leg issues can sap a player of his defensive prowess in a huge hurry. I'll be pleased as punch if a hopefully healthier Furcal can just approach something resembling an average defender at shortstop over the next two seasons.
In the end, you have to like this deal for the most part simply because it's a good bet. Furcal was not good in 2011, but he was worth 3.5 wins in 2009 and a stunning 4.2 wins in just 97 games in 2010. With the going rate for a marginal win somewhere in the $4.5-5 million range, Furcal was worth well over 35 million dollars for those two seasons. Do I think Furcal will produce at that level over the next two years? No, I do not. But if he could produce even half that value -- say, at a two win level for 2012 and '13 -- he'll prove to be a fair bargain.
Rafael Furcal certainly isn't going to make Cardinal fans forget about losing Albert Pujols anytime soon, but he shores up the team in the middle infield, guarding against a possible Tyler Greene disaster and promising we'll never have to watch Ryan Theriot take a groundball at shortstop again. That alone is worth the contract the Cards just gave him.