The Miami Marlins started the 2013 season with two stopgap options at different positions. Juan Pierre was signed to man left field, while Placido Polanco was picked up to play third base. Both were experienced players at those positions, and only Polanco was coming off of an injury-stricken season. Neither stopgap solution did the job well, and Miami's offense suffered for it.
The team is looking to dive into that well once more with their latest free agent signing, and this one comes with a little more risk. According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, Miami has just signed free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal to a one-year contract. Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel confirms that the deal is worth $3.5 million with added incentives for playing time.
Source confirms #Marlins have agreed with Rafael Furcal on one-year deal, believed to be about $3.5 million with playing time incentives.
— Juan C. Rodriguez (@JCRMarlinsbeat) December 6, 2013
The team intends to shift Furcal to second base, a position he has not regularly played since his rookie year back in 2000. Furcal has been primarily a shortstop for most of his career, so a position change does not sound out of the ordinary, especially for an aging 36-year-old.
Furcal is only two seasons removed from an "All-Star" season, though his credentials for the game that season were very questionable. He ended the 2012 campaign on a slide from his .275/.337/.364 (.310 wOBA) start to the year, finishing that season batting .264/.325/.346 (.296 wOBA).
Furcal also has a tricky issue with regards to injury concerns. He has never been a healthy player for much of his career, in particular in the later seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After finishing a six-season streak of great health in 2007, he only managed to play more than 140 games just once after that. Furthermore, he is coming off a significant elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and knocked him out for the entire 2013 season.
So why did Miami take a risk on this move? There is some upside to a Furcal signing, as there was to the Polanco signing of last season.
As with all one-year stopgap contracts, the Fish are throwing a small amount of money at a player in the hopes that they turn in a decent first half and maybe pick up enough trade interest by the All-Star break to scrounge up a prospect or two in return. Even with a nice first half, the prospect return would be small, but assets are assets, and Miami can always do with more. Even the slight potential for a trade return helps mitigate the risk of a collapse from Furcal.
This is especially helpful because Furcal will be playing a position of defensive premium up the middle. The worst that could happen is that Furcal can serve as a midseason injury replacement in a depressed market for a contending team. If he recovers well from the surgery, the team can even pass him off as a shortstop for short stretches of time, at least until contending teams get their injured players back. One can point to deadline deals of players like Alberto Callaspo as proof that teams can use versatile middle infielders who can play defense, even if they are not great hitters.
Injury Impact Lessened
Furcal's elbow injury certainly throws a wrench into the plans about making sure his defense is secure, however. He was never a great shortstop, though it was likely that he was average for his career before this latest injury. How might the injury affect his play?
It is certainly feasible that Furcal will give up a few more runs defensively thanks to an elbow injury that might sap his traditionally strong arm strength. But the Marlins are attempting to mitigate that concern by moving him down the defensive ladder. The strength necessary to make the shortstop throws is not nearly as necessary when playing second base. Furcal will remain closer to the bag and ease his transition from injury.
It would be nice to see him play second base well, of course. Furcal's final few seasons at shortstop had become brutal after he was above average for some time during his career. But the skills needed for both positions are not all that dissimilar, and Furcal is coming from the more difficult side of the spectrum. The combination of rust from being out all year and unfamiliarity at second should be evident at the beginning, but at least Miami is making the right move to shift the aging player down the spectrum. The impact is lessened, but the question should still be there.
No More Bat
Furcal was never an excellent hitter, but when he was an above average shortstop, he never had to be. His best season at the plate was actually in 2010 with the Dodgers, when he rode some good fortune in BABIP (.338, second highest career mark) to hit .300/.366/.460 (.359 wOBA). He hit eight homers in 428 plate appearances and put up a .159 ISO that would be the best in his career among seasons with at least 400 plate appearances.
But that was the last year when he showed any decent power, and it is unlikely that he can still wield significant pop in the bat coming off an elbow injury and being four years older. In his last two seasons, encompassing 900 plate appearances, he has hit just .251/.314/.347 (.295 wOBA). Given the aging and upper body injury, you can expect at best this line or a bit worse than that.
One nice part of Furcal's offense that may be highlighted in Miami may be his speed. He will not return to what he once could do on the basepaths in terms of steals, but Marlins Park provides plenty of open grass to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Unfortunately, Furcal only hit three triples and 33 doubles since 2011 (and may have lost just enough speed or power in the bat to even take advantage of this.
Despite my lack of a rosy opinion on Furcal's game, the projections are not that bad on him. Steamer seems high on his returning to decent form, as they are projecting a .258/.324/.370 batting line (.308 wOBA). That would be a bit better than incumbent players like Derek Dietrich, Ed Lucas, or Donovan Solano. The recently released Oliver rankings, provided by Brian Cartwright, places him closer to a .250/.316/.343 (.295 wOBA) line that would put him right next to the team's current middle infield options.
With positive defense (which is no guarantee this season), Furcal could provide a Steamer-projected 1.4 WAR in just 441 plate appearances. If Furcal's last two seasons were any indication, he would be closer to 1.5 WAR in 600 plate appearances. Let's take the middle between the rosier and the more cynical projection and give Furcal about 450 plate appearances to account for his checkered injury history. I would say a reasonable estimate for Furcal would be that he hits .250/.320/.355 (.301 wOBA) and provides Miami 1.2 WAR in that short time frame.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It is a better rate than we would expect from Solano or Dietrich, but it does not exactly blow them away. And there is a chance that the compiling age and injury has wrecked his defense more than this projection points out. Combined with the uncertainty of him playing second base well and you have the recipe for some decent downside and not much upside.
The Marlins spent more or less $3.5 million (presuming the playing time incentives are unlikely to vest) on a player who does not appear to be a major upgrade over who they had in-house. Sure, the Fish could snag a small asset if Furcal runs into some good luck early, but the team just as well could get nothing out of him if injuries roll over his season or if he is ineffective. Of course, at the small sum of $3.5 million, it hardly affects Miami. The move is a classic stopgap move in that it is low-risk and low-reward. But you still get the feeling like Miami could have done more and that there is a lost opportunity with this $3.5 million.
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