This year’s Dodgers offense was already going to be something of a dependent proposition -- dependent on the availability of Rafael Furcal. If OBP is the lifeblood of any offense, Furcal was the man being counted on to deliver it from the top of the order. But now that L.A.’s leadoff man is out for at least the next six weeks with a broken thumb, the Dodgers have to confront the same ugly numbers that have defined their destinies in the previous five seasons.
Since coming over from Atlanta in 2006, Furcal has been something of a weathervane for the club’s fortunes -- when he plays, it’s a contender, and when he’s not, it struggles to reach .500. Over the past five seasons, the Dodgers have a record of 306-257 when Furcal has been healthy enough to start and 123-124 when he’s out of the starting lineup. (And for all of that, he’s gotten as high as 14th in the MVP voting just once -- in 2006, when he played in a career-high 159 games in his first season in L.A.) With the usual small-sample caveats, this season was no different: Furcal in, Dodgers win, with a 5-2 record in his starts, 1-2 with grinder Jamey Carroll subbing.
Replacing Furcal’s bat might seem to be where the Dodgers will take the biggest hit. Projected by PECOTA for the second-best OBP in the lineup (behind Andre Ethier) at .339, for a .341 by ZiPS and for a .349 OBP by BIS, you may not read that as irreplaceable. However, the Dodgers were projected to rank 13th in the league at getting people on base, and absent Furcal for a quarter of the season or more, that isn’t going to get any better, even if the patient Carroll gets most of the playing time in his absence.
However, will the hit be that bad? It’s worth wondering now that the Dodgers have Carroll around, because last year they actually managed a slightly better record with him in the lineup than Furcal. Carroll’s career walk rate (10 percent) has been a fairly reliable commodity, creating a career OBP of .356, against Furcal’s .350.
What about defense? Carroll’s in his age-37 season, and might not be seen as a true shortstop these days. Given that there’s nobody else on the roster to replace Furcal with who resembles an everyday shortstop -- with prospect Ivan DeJesus Jr. long being seen as someone likely to wind up at second base -- it might be easy to rate Furcal’s value on defense fairly high. Admittedly, losing him should hurt, but via James Click’s Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Dodgers have bounced around from as high as second-best in MLB with Furcal playing regularly (in 2009) to 24th in 2006 and 20th in 2007 and 2010.
Fielding metrics like Total Zone (from Baseball-Reference.com) or Colin Wyers’ new Fielding Runs metric suggest that there wasn’t a lot separating Furcal and Carroll defensively last year. So even when talking about a defensive position as important as shortstop, defense necessarily has to work synergistically. Or, as Al Capone might note, "But in the field, what? Part of a team!"
If you remember "The Untouchables," you know what came next. And because of the club’s big-picture record without Furcal in the lineup, in his absence it’s easy to believe that it’s the Dodgers who stand a good chance of being bludgeoned. Even with their restocked rotation, this was a team that was going to have to win its share of close ballgames because of a series of decisions made about their lineup, from their enduring faith in James Loney’s punchless bat from first base, a bopper’s slot, to signing low-OBP infielder Juan Uribe away from the Giants.
In the abstract, this shouldn’t be quite as devastating as it sounds, but everything depends on the Dodgers’ depth. Can they count on Carroll and Casey Blake as regulars in their age-37 seasons? Maybe if Blake’s health puts him back in the lineup at third base somewhat regularly, the Dodgers might not seem not that badly off, swapping in one OBP threat in Carroll for another.
But the problem is that they’re relying on players close to the end of their careers, and if Blake or Carroll falter, there isn’t much to fall back on. DeJesus is projected to a .319 OBP (by PECOTA), the same as the team’s projected mark. If the Dodgers are going to endure, it’ll have to be on the merits of their old men.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.