The St Louis Cardinals addressed one of their roster issues on Saturday coming to an agreement with shortstop Rafael Furcal on a two-year/$14 million contract pending a physical. The physical will be early on in the week so the expected official announcement will follow closely thereafter. Furcal, 34, came over to the Redbirds in a 2011 trade deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his 50 games with St. Louis, he didn’t show much of the ability he had in his younger days and his performance in the playoffs last season was pretty dismal at the plate. What can Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny expect out of his veteran shortstop over the next couple seasons? Since Albert Pujols chose to sign elsewhere, general manager John Mozeliak has some excess money to fill in the remainder of the roster. Did he use it wisely with the Furcal signing?
The last two seasons haven been injury plagued for Furcal and this should be our first warning sign. What can the Cardinals expect from Furcal this season just in terms of staying on the field? He has played in a total of 184 games in the past two seasons with numerous injuries including his hamstrings, a broken thumb and an oblique strain. He also missed a significant portion of the 2008 season with a back injury. At 34 years old, these nagging types of injuries are going to be hard to avoid. Here are Furcal’s standard stats since 2007. There is no point going further back than this as those years are well behind him now and the chances of duplicating them are slim.
The chances that Furcal duplicates his last full season in 2009 or his 2010 partial season are looking somewhat slim too. He was downright awful with the Dodgers in 2011. While he “improved” after the trade to the Cardinals there was nothing special about his performance except maybe a little bit more power than he had exhibited recently.
As a leadoff hitter, Furcal obviously needs to get on base more often than he did last season. Looking at his peripheral stats while at the plate, Furcal took walks at basically the same pace as other seasons. He makes a ton of contact (88.2% for 2011, matching his career rate). However, he hits the ball on the ground a lot (54% GB rate) and now that his legs are bothering him he is not beating out many of these ground balls. When he could run, he would get around 20 infield hits and sometimes over 10 bunt hits in a single season. This goes a long way with his OBP. His BABIP was incredibly low at .240 as his career average sits at .313 mark. So, if Furcal is to be productive his legs are going to need to be healthy or he is going to have to draw more walks than he has in the past so he can be the table setter at the top of the lineup.
In the field, Furcal has also begun to decline. Again, bad legs means he will get to fewer balls (-3.1 range factor) and he this led to an appalling -9.4 UZR/150 for 2011. I can not see this improving too much unless he is better positioned to get to holes instead of using speed.
The contract Furcal received is certainly a good deal less than the best SS left on the market, Jimmy Rollins is expecting. There was some speculation that the Cardinals would try to go after Rollins since they were unable to sign Pujols. Signing Rollins would be a three or four year commitment, one the Cardinals do not want to make with Tyler Greene on the horizon. So, they decided to go with Furcal, who is no longer going to set the world on fire, but he also shouldn’t burn a hole in the Cardinals’ pockets. Giving Furcal a two-year contract worth $14 million is going to require Furcal to produce about 2.8 to 3.1 WAR total for both seasons (using $4.5 million and $5 million per 1 WAR).
Using the simple calculator from Wahoo’s On First’s Lewie Pollis, I put in Bill James’ projections, provided by FanGraphs for Furcal for 2012. For fielding on the simple calculator I used 5 for just below average and entered 2 for speed or just above average. This turned out a WAR of 2.2. If he was able to manage this twice he would exceed the value of the contract. I increased Furcal’s walks from 48 to 60 and his BABIP from .297 to .313 (his career average BABIP) and that churned out a 3.1 WAR. Minimally he would need 5 HR, 40 BB, 55 K, .300 BABIP, 400 PA, 100 games, play just below average in the field and have just above average speed to produce a 1.5 WAR. That twice is almost spot on to the value of the contract.
What all of this says is that Mozeliak made a decent deal here. If he gets a modestly productive Furcal for just 100 games each season he will break even on the deal. There is the chance that Furcal has a bounce back season if he remains healthy and could go above the value of the contract. The numbers that Bill James suggests are well within reach and leave room for a trip or two to the DL which should almost be expected from Furcal given the last few seasons. And who knows if Mozeliak is planning on some down time for Furcal to get Tyler Greene some time at short versus just giving him the job. Since the Cardinals have “saved” money by not re-signing Pujols they have some wiggle room for a potentially bad deal. This one could go that route, but the likihood of it being a good placeholder until something better comes along is just as good.