Stopping a Shortstop's Season Short

Rafael Furcal in better times, prior to dark magic sabotage. - David Banks-US PRESSWIRE

Rafael Furcal's injury isn't improving.

Our intrepid, young reporter enters the clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. It's late. Dusk has taken hold of the city and the complex. The article on the day's spring training game has been filed with his editor. The problem is that he has misplaced his notebook with a source quote in it. He's looked everywhere. Well, everywhere except for the clubhouse. He must have set it down at some point, he thinks to himself.

It's more bad news for Rafael Furcal. The elbow that hurt last season, hurts this season. And it isn't getting any better.

Chiding himself on his forgetfulness, he steps into the locker room. It's poorly lit and a florescent bulb flickers in the final moments of its life at the far end of the room. The room has mostly been straightened up at this point. Towels have been taken away for laundry. Cleats sit in neat rows at the bottom of lockers. Benches are cleared. It's taboo for the young reporter to be in the locker room without the players but that notebook. He needs that notebook.

Fans are going to second guess Furcal's decision to rehab a bum elbow. The more important question is whether that second guessing spreads to the front office. Without being privy to the intimate details of Furcal's medical records, it is all idle speculation but Furcal's health was always questionable -- even prior to the elbow. The solution to that problem has been a trio of statistical doppelgangers in Ryan Jackson, Pete Kozma and Ronny Cedeno. More times than I care to admit I've written about the difference between these players and Furcal. It still leaves one to wonder if Mozeliak could have done more.

Looking quickly about the locker room, the reporter doesn't see anything obviously out of place. No notebook is in sight. He walks to the wall to turn on more lights. Flipping the switch, the room illuminates briefly before a loud pop signals the end of the flickering bulb. The room is plunged into almost complete darkness. Muttering curses to himself, the reporter pulls his cell phone out and launches a flashlight app. It's bright but the phone's flash doesn't provide a very wide swath of light. Stepping further into the room, the reporter scans the lockers one by one, wondering if maybe, accidentally, one of the players had picked up his notebook.

But what does more look like? Does it look like Troy Tulowitzki or Elvis Andrus or JJ Hardy? Those are going to be the names that frequently enter the idle conversation of fans and potentially the less idle rumor mongering of the media. It's a pretty serious spread of talent and age. Hardy is the oldest of the three entering the season at age 31,Tulowitski is 28 and Andrus merely 24. All three remain well liked by defensive metrics and can be pegged at anywhere between +5 to +10 runs defensively in a good season.

Holding the light up to the first locker, Adam Wainwright's, the characteristic baseball paraphernalia populates the locker: glove, hat, jersey. Looking in the top of the cubby, the rubber handle of a hammer protrudes. Wooden pegs in an old mason jar rest nearby. Strange but Wainwright has always had mercurial hobbies. As the reporter steps further down the line of lockers, finding nothing, he recoils briefly, as his step lands on something squishy and slick. It smells sweet, almost sickly so. As he scrapes it off his show with disgust, it's a struggle to wipe off the over-ripe cantaloupe from his hand and shoe. The reporter flashes his light at Allen Craig's cubby and it's box of partially eaten sprinkle donuts. He continues down the line.

While each of three players can pick it at short, Tulowitzki stands head and shoulders above the others with the bat. ZiPS projects a roughly replacement level offensive production from Andrus and Hardy, which is a few points better than Rafael Furcal's projection but only marginally so. Tulowitzki, however, projects for a .380 wOBA. That's good for about 3.5 wins above replacement (over a full season) strictly from his offense. Clearly, that's what sets Tulowitzki apart and why he's such a valuable player. When you combine elite offense with above average defense at one of the most difficult fielding positions in the game, then you're going to come up with a player that can contend for MVPs during his peak seasons.

Examining each cubby, but careful not to displace anything for fear of upsetting a player, the reporter continues his search which has been both fruitless and full of fruit in an ironic twist. Grinning despite his still sticky fingers, he thinks of the terrible puns his headline writer would inflict upon his readers. A soft chuckle escapes his lips as he returns his focus to the lost notebook. A cubby, empty of jerseys but full of orange slice, provides no answers to the notebook. If the quote wasn't the central piece to his story, he'd hardly go through this trouble but the story will probably prove to be controversial and he'll need to back it up.

The contracts for the players are oddly reminiscent of their offensive production as well. Both Hardy and Andrus have similar three year contracts that expire at the end of the 2014 season. Hardy will make $22.5M over that time frame while Andrus collects $14.4 -- a reflection of his cost controlled status. These players both reflect a good deal of surplus value in their contract. Tulowitzki, however, has the behemoth contract at 10 years and $157.5M ending in 2020. It takes him through his age 35 season, which is generally beyond the lifespan of a typical shortstop.

A sharp glint catches his eye in the next cubby. Tinged green, the small stone has a distinctive thumb indentation and is smooth to the touch. Glossy and nearly worn through at the center from use. Placing the worry stone back in Jaime Garcia's cubby, careful to return it right where he found it, the reporter moves forward only to stumble. Spilling out of Matt Carpenter's cubby are a pair of gloves. Oddly, there are several more in the cubby. In fact, the cubby is almost full of gloves. Some catcher's mitts. Some outfield gloves. Each is numbered 1 through 9. The reporter steps over the mess making a mental note to ask Carpenter about it later.

Andrus has proven to be the most durable in recently years averaging over 675 plate appearances from 2010-2012. Tulowitzki was hampered by a groin injury last year leaving him with just 203 plate appearances and 446 on average over the last three seasons. Hardy has appeared in close to a full season for two consecutive years but 2010 with the Twins was clipped short by injuries of his own. His average of 551 plate appearances belies the 713 he racked up in 2012.

Green and orange zoot suits hanging from the cubbies of Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay fail to turn up the notebook. Nor did the shockingly elaborate lego house built inside Holliday's cubby contain anything more than some lego heads. Just the heads; no lego bodies. As the reporter neared the end of the line, he sighs in frustration thinking of where else he might have left the wretched notebook. The ballast of the faulty, fluorescent light spits sparks unexpectedly.

If you're taking on Tulowitzki's contract, you aren't paying him on the premise that he'll play just a partial season. Nor does it seem like the Colorado Rockies have an obvious replacement for Tulowitzki in the same way that the Texas Rangers have Jurickson Profar or the Baltimore Orioles have Manny Machado. The health concerns, long term contract and high asking price make a Tulowitzki trade seem unlikely -- though GM Dan O'Dowd has made high profile moves of big name players like Ubaldo Jimenez before. A JJ Hardy or Elvis Andrus trade seems much more measured and in line with what the Cardinals are generally comfortable with. Committing to a player for the next 6 years, without any real knowledge of how he'll fit with the team, seems a risky proposition. The Cardinals are much more likely to offer those kinds of contracts to known personalities -- if they offer them at all -- than they are to acquire a player on a contract like that.

Nearing the end of the row, the notebook shows itself. Tucked in the bottom of a cubby underneath a shoebox, the spiral bound leafs stick out on one side. As the reporter reaches to pull it free, he disturbs the lid of the shoebox, knocking it to the floor in a soundless fall of cheap cardboard. Notebook in hand, the reporter returns the lid to the shoebox. As he turns to walk away, he stops. Pulling up a nearby chair and setting his notebook next to him, the reporter sits down and takes the shoebox from the bottom of the cubby. Holding the cellphone, uncomfortably warm from the continual use of the flash as a light source, he takes the lid off the shoebox.

The Cardinals have the proverbial bullets to pull off any trade they want, it's merely a matter of how many shots they want to fire. The club remains without any elite long term shortstop prospect in it's own farm system so committing to Tulowitzki doesn't set up any obvious future conflicts. The Cardinals, in signing Furcal, took on a shorter term fix at a cheaper price two years ago rather than consider a player like Jose Reyes. A trade would hinge on the prospects that the other team would request of the Cardinals in combination with their own sense of urgency. It's hard to interpret anything this offseason or this spring as a sense of urgency. The Cardinals seem content to use their doppelgangers until Furcal heals and take little action beyond hoping for the best. It's tactic that will earn them little love and may cost them a few wins in the standings during a season they may need every win they can get.

Removing the person shaped object from the box, the reporter turns it slowly in the beam of light from his phone. Sticks and tar wrapped in string and twine bind the object together. It's plush head with button eyes and a twisted marker-drawn mouth lend a look of horror to the face. Almost as if it was screaming. The lights turn on unexpectedly. The reporter lets out a startled yelp, blinded by the suddenly omnipresent luminescence. As his eyes refocus, he notes the shadow clearly cast to his right. Looking over his shoulder he finds Pete Kozma, smile firmly entrenched on his face standing nearby. The reporter drops the stick and twine doll back into the shoebox and hastily puts it into the locker. Stammering apologies and flashing the notebook as evidence that he had found what he was looking for the reporter leaves in haste, chased out by the unnaturally still smile on Pete Kozma's face.

The headlines the next day read "Pete Kozma: Can the shortstop recapture last year's magic?" Quotes from manager Mike Matheny express dismay at the loss of Rafael Furcal whose elbow refuses to improve and names Pete Kozma as the starter until further notice. Kozma explains that his hitting last year wasn't some kind of dark magic but just a little bit of luck mixed with hard work. Kozma laments the loss of the veteran presence of Furcal at shortstop but vows to do his best until Furcal returns to health.

There's no mention of the shoebox in Pete Kozma's locker. No mention of the stick and twine doll with number 15 on its back that rests in the shoe box. No mention of the pain in its button eyes. Pain that stems from the needle planted firmly in its right elbow. A needle that's been there since late in 2012...

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