Cardinals banking on Furcal's health
Veteran shortstop has struggled with injuries since '08
JUPITER, Fla. -- The payoff on the Cardinals' two-year, $14-million investment in Rafael Furcal is primed to be measured by his durability.
Furcal is not as quick or as nimble as he once was, though at 34 years of age, such is the norm. That's no revelation to the Cardinals, who witnessed firsthand what Furcal could still offer when the organization acquired the shortstop in a Trade Deadline deal last summer. What they saw, they wanted back, and so they did what was needed to retain Furcal this winter.
It was a calculated gamble to build the middle of the infield around a player who has hardly played more than a season's worth of games in the last two years combined. But it was a risk the Cardinals were willing to take, because of what they believe a healthy Furcal can still offer.
"On a team that preaches pitching to contact, getting ahead, getting ground balls, you better have a shortstop that can help you out," manager Mike Matheny said. "Otherwise, you're going to have some trouble in your philosophy with your pitching."
The unknown is whether Furcal's 12-year career has already begun to take its toll on his durability. He played in at least 138 games each season from 2002-2007 before appearing in a career-low 36 in 2008, largely due to back surgery.
Furcal rebounded with a healthy 2009 season, but the last two years can't be characterized as kindly. There were hamstring and more back issues in 2010. Aches and pains in four different parts of Furcal's body last year kept him off the field. He ended up making just 81 starts as a result.
His offseason workout plans were interrupted by an emergency appendectomy, though Furcal insists the month-and-a-half break he was forced to take has played no role in some early Spring Training limitations. Soreness, most recently in his neck, has kept him off the field for all but three Grapefruit League games so far.
"This is the time you have to be careful," said Furcal, who returned to the field on Wednesday. "You have to be ready to [play] Opening Day. Now I want to keep playing, because I want to be ready right out of the gate. Now is the time where you need to play more and see more pitches."
None of the ailments have been serious. In fact, had any come during the regular season, Furcal likely would have played right through them. But the recent aches still underscore Furcal's increasing fragility and concerns that age will take its toll on both his positional range and ability to take his infield spot regularly.
In a preventative effort, the Cardinals put Furcal through a series of tests earlier this spring to identify if there are any areas of his body particularly prone to breakdown. By identifying those areas early, the Cardinals have tailored a conditioning and maintenance plan for Furcal to follow.
While all that can help, Furcal noted that it would be unfair to also discount the rigors of his position when discussing his recent injury history.
"I try to, every day, make sure I do my right warming up and everything I need to do to be ready for the whole season. You can control that," Furcal said. "I'm working hard to make sure I'm healthy, but when you play the game the hard way that I play every day, things can happen."
If he can stay on the field, Furcal would provide stability in a middle infield that is still seeking a second baseman. His presence there could be especially beneficial if the Cardinals end up giving that second base job to Tyler Greene, who has limited experience at the position.
Though he had logged just eight innings on the field in Grapefruit League play before Wednesday's six against the Astros, Furcal has been healthy enough to start building a rapport with all three potential second baseman during side workouts. The ability to get that side work in has lessened any urgency Matheny might have had to get Furcal more involved while at less than 100 percent health.
There is certainly value in Furcal's leadership, his ability to command attention and the looseness with which he approaches the game. That's something that many of his teammates credit as a catalyst during the club's wild run to the World Series.
That all factored into the Cardinals' decision to go aggressively after Furcal when he was exploring his free agency options. But that's just a fraction of what the Cardinals are seeing in this multi-million-dollar investment. This is a payoff that is contingent on Furcal being on the field.
"It's a new year," Furcal said. "I have to forget the last two years. I'm confident in myself and confident I can stay healthy."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.