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Sunday, December 11, 2011
Spending the Pujols dividend... on Furcal?

By Christina Kahrl

As expected, after losing out on Albert Pujols the Cardinals’ first order of business wasn’t to sign another first baseman, it was to land a shortstop. Re-signing incumbent shortstop Rafael Furcal might not placate mortified Cardinals fans, but it did promptly resolve the most important order of business on GM John Mozeliak’s agenda post-Pujols.

Rafael Furcal
The Cardinals have to hope Rafael Furcal can stay healthy after bringing back the free agent shortstop for a two-year deal.
At a reported $14 million over two years the obvious question is whether the Cardinals overpaid for a shortstop with a superstar rep but less than star-level production. Simply put, Furcal hasn’t had a season in which he’s been great at the plate and healthy enough to play 100 games since 2006. He’s had just two healthy seasons in that span, managing to play 138 games in 2007 and 150 in 2009. He’s been on the DL six times in five years, missing a total of 269 games with assorted injuries.

How good was Furcal when he was healthy? Not very, as it turns out, not relative to other shortstops. Per Baseball-Reference.com, in that 2007 season he ranked just 19th in OPS among MLB players with 300 or more PAs playing shortstop, and 22nd in WAR. In 2009, he moved up to 15th in OPS, and 10th in WAR. For his production over the entire five-year span combined, Furcal rates 11th among big-league shortstops in Baseball-Reference.com’s brand of WAR, and 14th in OPS.

Is he worth the money? He clearly profited from position-related scarcity. The problem Mozeliak was confronted with is that there weren’t that many alternatives on the market, because it isn’t entirely open. The supply of players is limited with the specific goal of improving compensation, and the supply of people better than Furcal was effectively out of the Cardinals’ reach: Jose Reyes was already a Marlin before the Pujols sweepstakes ended, while Jimmy Rollins wants (or wanted) five years and seems increasingly inclined towards a return to Philadelphia. The Cardinals might not have had many rivals for Furcal’s attention, but trying to drive a hard bargain could have brought him into the range of competing bids.

What about a trade? You can always expand the pool of possible shortstops beyond the free agents, but it’s easier to speculate about swinging a deal for somebody else’s shortstop than to actually pull one off; teams have a way of wanting to retain the best players at the position. Chasing after the Padres’ Jason Bartlett might have been the best option out there -- he’s locked in for $5.5 million in 2012, with a 2013 club option for the same (or a $1.5 million buyout), which is a lot less than Furcal is making. But that amount of control at that level of cost would have guaranteed that the Cardinals would have had to offer quality prospects to San Diego, something that seems especially difficult to do in today’s prospect-worshipping market.

You can figure that the Cardinals’ largesse with Furcal is their way of re-employing some major portion of the Pujols dividend. But the notion that there is a Pujols dividend suggests what’s really wrong with this sort of money on Furcal: Not that they didn’t get one of the best shortstops available, but that’s a left-handed compliment -- there aren’t many shortstops available. The real complaint about the expense is whether or not the money spent potentially limits them from spending money on any of their other needs. Or pursuing Carlos Beltran.

As long as we’re spending our time worrying about how people are spending money, the other thing to wonder about is how much of a financial reward the world champion Cardinals will reap in year-after profits. You might think that there’s some room to grow: Last year’s per-game attendance ran at 87 percent of capacity, the lowest it has ever been in their six seasons in the latest Busch Stadium. But that reflects the benefit of having a reliably loyal fan base. The Cardinals have ranked third in the league in attendance for five years in a row -- they don’t have a ton of room to move up. In 2007, the season after their previous title, they got a meager attendance bump of just 145,000 paying customers. Pujols’ defection probably won’t help 2012 ticket sales any, nor will the state of the local economy.

So it’s Furcal for $14 million for two years. If he hits as well as he did for the Cardinals down the stretch, they won’t complain; if they get OBPs in the .330-.340 range, they’ll consider the offensive side of the proposition a success. If he’s healthy enough to play 240 out of 324 regular-season games over the life of the contract, they should consider themselves lucky.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.