Offseason Report: Playing With Fire

Cannon Huge’

The Cardinals enter the 2013 campaign vulnerable at shortstop, a key position for every team. 

Rafael Furcal was a major catalyst during the Redbirds incredible 2011 World Series run, but a season-ending elbow injury in 2012 has many wondering what exactly Rafi has left in the tank.

Furcal started 2012 off with a bang, hitting .314 in April and followed with a 38-hit, 23-run May in which he hit .349 and got on base at a ridiculous .397 clip. Those two months alone earned Furcal a midsummer trip to K.C. for his 3rd All-Star game.

Month

But from June through his last game on August 30th, he struggled at the plate. He failed to hit above the St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Redsinfamous Mendoza line in June (.179) and owned a dangerously low .477 OPS. It’s fair to say that his horrific June derailed Rafi’s once promising 2012 season. In the final two months before tearing his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (right, throwing arm), Furcal only hit .237, averaged 8.5 runs scored and had a putrid OBP of .250 in August. He lost his leadoff spot to Jon Jay, and Mike Matheny struggled to hide Furcal in the lineup.

By the time his right elbow gave out during a late August game at Washington, Rafi became more of a question mark than the focal point he was throughout the season’s early stages.

So, even before Rafi’s 34-year-old body wore down, he had already showed signs of decline at the plate. The Cardinals decision to stand pat this offseason proves that Pete Kozma contributed enough during the stretch run last season to serve as an ample reserve to a “recovered” Rafael Furcal.

Granted, Kozma had a number of big hits down the stretch. His epic ninth inning go-ahead single in Game 5 of the NLDS at Washington capped one of the most memorable comebacks in franchise history, but he showed worrisome holes in his game that will get exposed if he’s thrust into a major role.San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals

Shortstop is not the position to mess around with. The great ones affect the entire infield in a positive way. A great shortstop is essentially the quarterback, configuring positioning and eating a ton of ground.

Rafi is an exceptional shortstop. He has a tangible effect defensively nearly every night, whether it’s turning a double play, making a diving stop, or showing off his rifle from deep in the hole. Despite his most recent injury, his presence at short defensively is undeniable.

Pete Kozma has no presence at shortstop.  Perhaps it’s unfair to label him as a defensive liability, but that’s exactly what he showed down the stretch. Nerves, inexperience, whatever; it was unacceptable for a team whose pitching staff relies on ground balls.

Its hard to imagine Kozma making these sort of game-changing plays:

Maybe he’ll prove me wrong, emerging into a homegrown shortstop, but even General Manager John Houston Astros v St. Louis CardinalsMozeliak admits that turning over shortstop to Kozma long term is “gambling.” It was reported Saturday that the Cardinals agreed to terms with free agent Ronny Cedeno, who owns a career .319 average against St. Louis and a .303 average at Busch Stadium. Still, Furcal is pivotal. 

Since playing 150 games as a 31 year old in 2009, Furcal has played in less than half of his teams contests (48%, 392 out of 810) while never scoring higher than 69 runs. It’s unrealistic to think Furcal can produce for 6+ months at a high level.

When healthy, he’s been a thorn for NL Central rivals:

Cincinatti    .336 14 HR 56 RBI 65 Runs

Milwaukee  .285 10 HR 25 RBI 51 Runs

Pittsburgh   .296  6  HR 33 RBI 62 Runs

With one more year on top his now fragile 35-year-old body, it sure seems like a very optimistic stance by a team that has proven overly optimistic about aging or unproven players in the past. Whether or not that optimism costs the Cards in 2013 remains to be seen.

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