Rafael Furcal has not played 150 games during a single regular season since 2009, and that was bookended by seasons in which he played 36 and 97 games. Last year was the first time Furcal had played more than 100 games since that 2009 season in Los Angeles, and even last season his playing time was curtailed by a torn ligament in his elbow.
In short, Furcal is not exactly Miguel Tejada in his prime when it comes to durability. Thus, it is not particularly shocking to read about Furcal’s elbow still giving him trouble. This time, it is a bone spur keeping him off of the field. It is not clear whether this will affect Furcal’s ability to start the season as the Cardinals’ shortstop. It is obviously troubling, given that St. Louis has its eyes on a return to the playoffs. The options if Furcal cannot go are not very appealing. But are they bad enough to force the Cardinals’ hand?
Furcal’s Opening Day status is currently unknown. His record, as seen above, does not inspire confidence. The Cardinals’ current options if Furcal goes down are last year’s Bo Hart, Pete Kozma (master of the great interview) and Ronny Cedeno. To put it kindly, none seem all that great. If Furcal does miss significant time, how much will it hurt the Cardinals’ chances at the playoffs?
Kozma had some big moments last year, but we are all familiar enough with sample size issues these days to not get worked up over a .333/.383/.569 (153 wRC+) line over just 82 plate appearances. Nothing in his minor league track record indicates he could do anything like that, and even the Fan Projections, by far the most optimistic, currently see him hitting for a .299 wOBA in 2013. That might make him about an average player if he could play good defense at shortstop, but most of the other projections have him at about a .280 wOBA. That works for a bench player, but not a full-timer, at least not one who isn’t the second coming of Adam Everett.
Cedeno was a pretty decent infield prospect about seven years ago, but that was, uh, seven years ago. He had the best batting line of his career in 2012, hitting .259/.332/.410 (107 wRC+) for the Mets. Again, though, that was in a small sample (186 PA). For his career, Cedeno has his .247/.290/.357 (68 wRC+) over almost 2500 plate appearances. He just turned 30, so a big breakout probably is not around the corner.
Neither Kozma nor Cedeno are starter material. But would they really be much of a drop-off in quality from Furcal? Furcal has definitely had some good seasons at the plate. As recently as 2010 he hit .300/.360/.466 (126 wRC+). Age seems to have caught up with him over the last two seasons, though, as he hit .264/.325/.346 (87 wRC+). His age itself (Furcal is 35) is discouraging enough. One might also want to consider how injuries might have effected his ability to produce as a hitter and a fielder. Steamer and ZiPS both project him for about a .310 wOBA, while Oliver and the Fans seem him as more of a .300 wOBA hitter.
So how much worse are Kozma and Cedeno? If Furcal (optimistically) is a .310 wOBA hitter and we take the low-end of Kozma Cedeno projections (.280 wOBA), the difference comes out to about 15 runs difference over a full season. That assumes equal baserunning and fielding. (It is not clear to me that Furcal has an advantage in those areas at this point in his career, but I will leave that issue aside for the sake of simplicity.)
Still, is the difference enough for the Cardinals to make a move? A real answer to that question requires looking at a number of factors beyond the scope of a simple blog post. Instead, I will just try to put things in perspective. One factor is how much time Furcal might miss. If he misses the full season, that is one thing. However, it is not clear at this point that he would miss the whole season. Say he misses half of the season. That would still be a lot of time missed. Still, assuming the projections above, that would probably only cost them one win in the standings at most. One win could be the difference between making the playoffs, and the Cardinals project to be right on the bubble, so it should not be dismissed. Yet it is not a disastrous loss.
Even if he does miss the full season, that would project to cost them two games at most. That is significant, but also pretty pessimistic. Moreover, it is not clear whether it would make it worth it for them to make a trade for a shortstop. After all, they could always spend their assets (whether in talent or cash) to make a marginal improvements elsewhere that would not be as costly as finding a “real” starting shortstop. In a worst-case scenario, Cardinals fans might also want to recall that the Brewers won the 2011 Central with Yuniesky Betancourt as their starting shortstop.
This is not to say that the Cardinals shouldn’t make a move to improve at shortstop if the opportunity arises. Obviously, right now the they are waiting to see just how bad the injury is. The general point is simply an old one worth reiterating: the loss of a starting player usually will not cost a team as many wins as one might think. This is especially true in the case of a non-elite player like Furcal. Furcal’s elbow problems are bad for St. Louis, but even at worst they are unlikely to be devastating.