While a substantial portion of St. Louis Cardinals fans may still be in shock over the loss of Albert Pujols to the Angels, the front office has not stopped working. The team has reportedly signed shortstop Rafael Furcal (who recently turned 34) to a two-year, $14 million contract (pending a physical), marking a willingness to move on not only from the Pujols Era, but also from the Reign of Ryan Theriot. Furcal hit poorly in 2011, and has had trouble staying healthy in recent seasons. However, given the situation the Cardinals find themselves with respect to both contention and other internal candidates, the signing makes sense for them.
The market for free agents is still working itself out this off-season, so it is difficult to peg the average cost of a marginal win at the moment. Taking a conservative approach of a $5 million price of a marginal win with a five percent increase on that average cost each year, the Cardinals are paying Furcal as if he will be about a 1.5 win player in 2012 with an expected decline to one win in 2013. Is Furcal likely to be worth it? Looking just at 2011, in which he hit poorly (.231/.298/.348, 81 wRC+) and played in only 87 games for an accumulated 0.5 WAR, one might think this is a serious overpayment. On the other hand, Furcal was worth 3.5 WAR in 2009 and 4.2 WAR (in only 97 games) in 2010. Which one is the “real” Furcal.
Focusing on the most recent season or throwing it out as a outlier are both as frequent as they are mistaken. A player’s true talent level is best projected by some combination of weighting his most recent seasons, taking age into account, and regressing to the mean. That’s what a good projection system does. One cannot simply dismiss Furcal’s miserable 2011 performance. However, when one weights it against previous performances, notes that his walk and strikeout rates were still pretty good while his BABIP (more subject to random variation and thus more likely to regress to the mean) was uncharacteristically low, and accounts for his advanced age, it seems likely that Furcal is better than his 2011 performance. He probably isn’t going to be the hitter he was in 2010 again, but Oliver projects him to be something like he was in 2010, projecting him for a .314 wOBA (.263/.326/.384) in a neutral environment. That is about league average. Furcal’s fielding is not what it used to be, but he’s still probably an above-average defender at a premium position. With the positional adjustment for shortstop figured in, a conservative projection for Furcal over a full season would put him at about three WAR.
Of course, the “over a full season” is something that should set off at least some sort of alarm bell, as Furcal last played more than 100 games in 2009. This is why some may think this is too much money. The deal is reportedly still pending a physical, so the Cardinals are doing their due diligence. However, remember that I have tried to err on the side of conservatism in my projections for both the cost of a marginal win and of Furcal’s defensive value. Moreover, even if Furcal can only play half of the season, given the three WAR estimated true talent for a full season, he would still be worth the conservative “market value” of his deal. One could split hairs over the exact amount of playing time, but the point is simply that the likelihood that Furcal will be able to play only part of a season is already taken into account by this deal as reported.
This deal might not make much sense if the Cardinals looked like they had not shot of defending their World Championship. However, the team looks primed for another run at the playoffs. While any team would have trouble replacing Albert Pujols’ projected wins, moving Lance Berkman to first base and a (hopefully healthy) Allen Craig replacing him in the outfield buffer the loss. Adam Wainwright‘s return also makes the rotation imposing once again. Like Berkman, good players like Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter are at an age where not going to get any better — the Cardinals cannot wait around. Moreover, while some might think that Tyler Greene should get a shot to play, he seems to be a better fit to compete with Daniel Descalso for playing time at second base (assuming the Cardinals do not find an outside upgrade for that position), if anywhere. Greene probably cannot hit or field as well as Furcal, and if he really needs playing time, Furcal gets hurt often enough that time at shortstop will be available.
It is hard to imagine any team being as good without Albert Pujols as they would be with him, and obviously the Cardinals are no exception. But along with the return of Adam Wainwright and opening for Allen Craig, having Rafael Furcal on a deal that is both reasonable and affordable puts the Cardinals in a position to make a strong run for the playoffs even without their Hall of Fame (former) first baseman.