2012 Preview: Shortstop

For the Cardinals, the Opening Day starter at shortstop is pretty well assured. That would be Rafael Furcal. A mid-season addition at the trade deadline for the Cardinals in 2011, Furcal provided a significant upgrade to the defense at shortstop for the Cardinals. It was a steadying glove when the Cardinals needed one most.

The oft-injured Furcal was in the final year of his previous deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Furcal had a $12 million club option on his contract for 2012 that could automatically vest with 600 plate appearances. Since he ended up with just 356 between the Dodgers and the Cardinals, the Cardinals’ declined the option and made him a free agent. Eventually, they brought him back as their first post-Pujols deal for 2 years at $7 million a piece.

This could be a very short preview post. You see, because of the injuries that Furcal has suffered over the last 4-5 years, it’s hard to get a good read on what kind of player the Cardinals’ can expect Furcal to be.

In limited time in 2010 he hit .300 for the Dodgers over 97 games. In 2008 in 36 games he hit .357. Last year though, he played just 37 games for the Dodgers before his end of July trade to the Cardinals and was hitting just .197. Though he did go on to hit .255 for the Cardinals. His .316 OBP was not something I want in the leadoff spot though. He also struggled mightily in the playoffs, including the World Series.

His last full season, was 2009 where he played 150 games. He hit .269 with a .335 OBP and 9 home runs.

But the Cardinals haven’t acquired him for his bat. The previous offseason the Cardinals talked about swapping out defense to improve the offense. Gone was Brendan Ryan, arguably one of the best defensive short stops in the majors. In came Ryan Theriot who had been used at second base by both of his previous teams. We heard all about how short stop was Theriot’s “natural position.” (I always wonder what that even means, shouldn’t your natural position be your best?)

What the Cardinals learned is that you do, in fact, need some defense. After the Furcal acquisition, Jake Westbrook‘s ERA dropped half a run, the most stark show of Furcal’s difference for the team.

While we might know who is going to start at shortstop this season, we don’t know how he’s going to do. I don’t think he’s going to be good enough to be considered a leadoff hitter for the Cardinals and I hope he’ll be willing to take the drop in the lineup because of it. With an offense that will rely on ever member doing their part to get on base and keep players moving, a .316 OBP will not get the job done in the leadoff spot.

If he stays healthy, I think he’ll end up around .270/.330/.420 on the season along with slightly above average defense at shortstop. That’s if he stays healthy, and for Furcal that’s the question. Since the start of the 2008 season he has played just 57% of his team’s games. Even in his three month stint with the Cardinals he spent time down with injury after tripping in the Wrigley Field batting cages.

On the bench

The problem with the Cardinals right now is that there is a severe lack of depth at short stop. Behind Furcal you have the most obvious choice in Tyler Greene. However, Tyler Greene’s defensive numbers more closely resemble Theriot’s than Furcal’s.

The Cardinals brought veteran Alex Cora, the man who Furcal eventually replaced in Los Angeles, in on a minor league contract to help coach some of the younger infielders. Right now he is my dark horse candidate to make the team as a backup shortstop. While the 36 year old Cora isn’t amazing with the bat (he hit .224/.287/.276 in 91 games with the Nationals last year), he would be the only other potentially plus shortstop that the Cardinals have.

You also have Daniel Descalso as a possible short stop candidate, should a few week solution be needed. He spent some time there last year and I believe he could be capable of being a top notch defensive shortstop but he needs time to get comfortable at the position. Something the Cardinals weren’t really willing to give him last year.

On the farm

Down in the minors, the Cardinals really have only one shortstop that anyone is interested in talking about these days. That’s Ryan Jackson. Jackson played in Springfield last year and was a 5th round pick in 2009. He hit .278/.334/.415 in 135 games for Springfield last year and was solid on defense. He will likely get the bump to Memphis this season.

He also showed great improvement on defense, posting a career high .969 fielding percentage of the season. That makes him the best defensive shortstop in the organization last year, but far from someone I want to play at the majors. Hopefully he will continue his development.

I don’t mention 2007’s first round pick Pete Kozma as a potential shortstop option. The reason for this is that the team moved him to second base after Tyler Greene returned to Memphis last season. His defensive numbers are so far better at second base and that would be a good position for him. His question will be the bat. In 112 games in Memphis last season he hit .214/.280/.289. If he stays at second base this year, as I expect he will with Jackson moving up, he’ll be looking over his shoulder at Kolten Wong very soon. Whether at shortstop or second base, Kozma’s time is running out.