Furcal can be top-five shortstop again
So after a very messy set of negotiations where it appeared he might be headed back to Atlanta, Rafael Furcal appears to be returning to the Dodgers after all. And thus opens up a very interesting debate over his fantasy value heading into 2009.
Furcal hit .357 in 2008, so there's little question what kind of performer he is capable of being. The scrappy shortstop hits for average, normally has some pop and steals many bases, all from a premium position. What's not to like?
The problem is Furcal hit .357 in only 36 games for the Dodgers, and he missed 24 games the season prior. Heading into 2007, he was a top-5 shortstop, a dynamic offensive -- and really, defensive -- player on the level of Jimmy Rollins, whom fantasy owners could depend on year after year. Now, after back-to-back disappointing campaigns, many must wonder whether Furcal is going to be a top-50 player ever again.
Late in 2007, he hurt his back, which again appeared to be no big deal. Oh, but it was a big deal. He needed lower back surgery in May 2008 and missed months, forcing the Dodgers to -- gulp -- go the Angel Berroa route. Considering Furcal was, on average, the No. 68 player taken in ESPN live drafts last season, let's just say his nearly five-month absence was a very big deal. Some Furcal owners just might not trust him again, even though he's 31, not exactly an age at which steep decline is obvious.
I didn't intend to rank Furcal among the top 5 shortstops anymore, not until we saw he could avoid injury, but the nature of the relatively disappointing position changed my mind. Sure, almost everyone gets hurt at some point. It's been two seasons now, and it's possible Furcal won't return to 15-home run power or 40 stolen bases. Then again, one probably can count on 100 runs scored if he can play 150 games, with maybe 10 home runs, 30 steals and a batting average in the .280 range. And don't be too concerned by the home park. In 2006, he actually hit 12 of his 15 homers at Dodger Stadium. There's nothing wrong with those numbers, and if I'm drafting today, the only shortstops I'm definitely taking ahead of Furcal are first-rounders Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes and top-25 option Rollins.
The position has depth, but not of the high-end variety. Derek Jeter and Jhonny Peralta were the Nos. 4 and 5 shortstops on our 2008 Player Rater, but I'd argue neither is a clear-cut top-50 player. Troy Tulowitzki had a disappointing sophomore season. Jeter, Michael Young and Miguel Tejada clearly are in decline. Peralta and J.J. Hardy don't run a lick. And it might be premature to move Stephen Drew and Alexei Ramirez past more proven players. For now, I would rank Furcal eighth or ninth, ahead of a few of the shortstops in this paragraph -- Ramirez is a shortstop now, by the way -- but not all. But I wouldn't laugh at those who feel Furcal is a top-5 shortstop.
While the Braves may have been jilted by the deal, they now don't have to worry as much about how to get at-bats for their solid middle infield duo of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson. As for the A's, who originally thought they were close to getting Furcal before the whole mess with the Braves popped up, they will stick with Bobby Crosby, but you shouldn't.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.