Thursday, December 18, 2008

Signing Furcal would have been Wrong Move for Wren

Rafael Furcal’s 11th hour decision to spurn the Atlanta Braves in favor of the Los Angeles Dodgers might have been the best thing to happen to Braves GM Frank Wren this offseason. A year after wasting $8 million on a homecoming for washed up Tom Glavine, Wren was ready to award Furcal with a three-year/$30 million contract to return to Atlanta.

Make no mistake, Furcal was at one time a dynamic player, arguably the best all-round shortstop in the National League. From 2003-06 he slugged over .430 and averaged nearly 35 steals a season while playing highlight reel defense. However, he turns 32 next year and is coming off microdiscectomy surgery on his lower back. Granted it’s a small sample size, but Furcal wasn’t the same player after returning to the Dodgers lineup for the playoffs. In eight postseason games he hit just .258 and made a whopping four errors.

In addition to the possibility that they would have invested a fortune in damaged goods, there’s one other major factor that would have made this an ill-fated move for the Braves – the presence of incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar. Escobar, just 26, has emerged as an above-average defensive shortstop with plenty of upside on offense. Moreover, he’s cheap. He’ll earn near the league minimum in 2009 and isn’t arbitration eligible until after the 2010 season.

There are several schools of thought on why the Braves were willing to sign Furcal despite Escobar being firmly entrenched at shortstop. First, the club probably has designs on re-entering the Jake Peavy sweepstakes and would have dangled Escobar as the primary trading chip. While we would certainly never argue against any team acquiring a 27-year-old ace, especially one who already has a CY Young Award in his trophy case and four years of cost certainty by virtue of a long-term deal, we do have a problem with the idea of Furcal serving as Escobar’s replacement. As we indicated earlier, what proof would the Braves have had that the Furcal they signed is the same as the 2003 vintage? Assuming he isn’t (and that’s a logical assumption to make given the fact he’s six years older and fresh off of major back surgery), the $9.5 million differential between his and Escobar’s 2009 contract EXCEEDS the $9 million Peavy is owed next season. And we haven’t even mentioned the $20 million the team would have owed Furcal in 2010-11.

If Atlanta really is that intent on using Escobar as trade bait for Peavy, the club could easily find another, more suitable substitute at shortstop. For example, Wren could swing a trade with Pittsburgh for Jack Wilson, a defensive specialist whose contract guarantees him just one more year at $7.25 million. If Wilson proves to be a bust, he’s off the Braves’ books a year from now. If he plays well, the Braves obtained a potential Gold Glove winner at less than 75% of what Furcal would have cost. Either way, Wren & Co. incur a fraction of the risk versus what they would have had the Furcal deal come to fruition.

The second school of thought as to why Atlanta entertained thoughts of bringing back Furcal was presented eloquently in this column by Dave O’Brien. As O’Brien stated, Atlanta would have shifted Furcal to second base and moved Kelly Johnson to left field with the intention of creating a high-flying, acrobatic double play combination. This was a ludicrous idea. Not only has Furcal played exactly one game at second in the past six years, but Johnson is a well above average fielder (he gets to a half-ball more per game than the average N.L. second baseman) whose high octane bat puts him within the elite tier of the league’s second baseman. As a left fielder, Johnson would be merely replacement level.

It’s obvious that Frank Wren once again chose sentiment over common sense with his ill-advised strategy to sign Rafael Furcal. Fortunately for the Braves, however, Furcal’s last minute machinations left his old team standing alone at the altar. Christmas has indeed come early to Atlanta.

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