Rafael Furcal is sitting pretty right about now.
While Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are clearly the top two free agent shortstops, each player carries a significant amount of risk. Furcal isn’t free and clear of the risks associated with either player, but he’ll prove significantly less expensive.
Reyes’s inability to stay on the field — he played in 295 of the possible 486 games since 2009 — eats away at his value. If teams aren’t convinced he has adequately recovered from his recent ailments, they are less likely to dole out an iconic type of contract. The talent is obvious, and at 28 years old he is still in his prime. But what good is paying $16+ million per year for the next 4-6 years if he can’t stay on the field?
Rollins, meanwhile, expects to sign a lucrative 3-4 year deal. Sure, he expressed a desire for a five-year contract because, hey, who wouldn’t want that type of deal. But he knows it’s unlikely. Rollins’s performance has been hindered by injuries of late, but his 2011 numbers marked a return to form to his 2004-06 self, the player that produced 4.5-5 WAR. He’s an elite defender at the most important position, a top-notch baserunner, and a league average hitter capable of knocking the ball out of the yard. These players don’t grow on trees, but Rollins is also 33 years old.
Teams don’t necessarily shy away from players his age, but they surely try to avoid committing too much in years and dollars. Signing Rollins, or someone like him, for two years and $20 million is one thing. Signing him for four years and $50 million is an entirely different story. Some teams will gladly undertake that risk if it means shoring up their infield, but the rest of the league will seek an alternative solution.
Cue Furcal, who is also 33 years old, and who has produced very similarly to Rollins over the past three seasons. In 334 games since 2009, Furcal tallied 8.2 WAR. Over 385 games in the same span, Rollins tallied 9.3 WAR. An entire win above replacement, spread over three years, doesn’t amount to much.
Is there really a difference between 3.5 and 3.2 WAR? Though the question was rhetorical, I’ll answer it anyway: no, there isn’t really a difference.
This isn’t to say that Furcal is better than Rollins, now or moving forward. He isn’t. He can throw harder to first base, but his range is limited and his hands aren’t as sure. At the plate, Furcal is more disciplined, while Rollins displays more power. At the end of the day, however, their offensive numbers are fairly similar: they have identical career .336 wOBAs.
Reyes is clearly better than both of these players, but for teams that decide he is too risky for a huge contract, who are also considering signing Rollins to a less risky deal, Furcal should be concurrently considered. He might not produce as well as Rollins next season, but the gap in their production won’t be material.
At this point in their respective careers, the main difference between Furcal and Rollins is that the former doesn’t expect a big contract. Even if his performance, albeit injury-rattled, would merit a 3-4 year deal, Furcal will likely sign for one or two years and less per annum.
Rollins may be more of a sure thing, but not so much so to the point of committing significant team resources to his acquisition when a similarly-skilled, and markedly less expensive alternative exists.
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