Manny Ramirez's suspension hasn't been the only disappointing news during the Dodgers red-hot start.
In a year in which the Dodgers finally seem to be getting some return on JuanPierre's $44-million contract and Orlando Hudson has outplayed the one-year, $5-million contract he signed in February, Rafael Furcal looks unfit to fulfill the three-year, $30-million deal he inked this past off-season.
General manager Ned Colletti has taken many hits for signings over the years -- J.D. Drew, Jason Schmidt, Pierre -- but re-signing Furcal could prove to be his biggest error as Major League Baseball, like all pro sports leagues, enters a new era of frugality due to the economic crunch. How cumbersome could Furcal's contract become to the team's payroll if he doesn't break out of his season-long slump? And why is the shortstop mired in a funk after bursting into an elite fantasy player at the beginning of last season? Can he give owners more bang for the buck for the potentially lofty salaries he garnered in auction drafts? It's time to Deconstruct this bad boy.
2009: .241 AVG, .637 OPS, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 35 R, 4 SB
All statistics through June 29.
Remember the following line from last year: .357 AVG, 1.012 OPS, 34 RBIs in 36 games. That's a MVP-style line from Furcal, who emerged as an elite fantasy player last year before succumbing to major back issues.
The injury bug has bitten Furcal numerous times in his Dodgers career, with ankle and back issues cropping up for parts of his '07 campaign. To preserve his health, manager Joe Torre vowed before this season to rest Furcal about once per week. "Mr. T," as many of his former Yankees players affectionally call him, has delivered on his promise to rest Furcal. Yet his relatively good health hasn't sparked a major offensive surge.
He had a 10-game hitting streak from June 5-17/ during which he batted .294 with four doubles and a homer. An uplifting string of games, but hardly an all-out offensive breakout. Aside from three multi-hit games in four contests from April 15-19, Furcal has been dryer than a Joe Buck joke.
Among his many unsavory splits is a .175 batting average with runners in scoring position, which goes against the .370 mark he sported last year. That helps explain why his RBI total is the same as last year even though he's played almost twice as many games. With 69 games under his belt, vs. 39 last year, look at some other counting stats: 35 runs scored this year vs. 34 last year; three homers vs. five in '08; four steals compared to eight last year.
His on-base percentage, just .314, is partially correlated to a decreased walk rate. He's still drawing free passes at a fine rate (9.7 percent), but it's nowhere near a 12.3 figure last year that could've been considered as unsustainable. His current walk rate still ranks as fourth-best in his 10-year career, so we shift to looking at Furcal's hitting as what's holding him back -- not his overall plate patience.
If his patience has remained above-average, then an increased strikeout rate can't be due simply to a stubborn affliction to swinging at anything. Furcal's contact rate has sunk to 86.8 percent. It's his worst mark since his 2000 rookie season and defies explanation for why he continually misses the ball. This has spurred a 17.0 strikeout percentage, which is his highest mark -- by two percentage points -- since 2002.
When he does make contact, the ball is primarily hitting the ground. A career 18.3 percent line drive hitter, Furcal's rate has sunk to 16.7. Is the back affecting his ability to drive the ball? It's never reliable to blindly place the blame of a past injury on poor play, but would anyone reading this doubt that it could at least have a mental effect?
I'm a fan of assessing mental and emotional issues for a player's state of production. Does Furcal feel comforted by the $30 million contract? Does the back not affect just whether he can drive the ball but if he can get the bat around in the first place? After watching 30-40 Dodgers games, it's clear he looks tentative at the plate. He isn't swinging through the zone with the same vigor as last year. As for finishing an explanation for his lowered contact rate, let's just say it's better for you that I don't try to break down a baseball swing. I've had enough trouble in my life trying to figure out my golf stroke much less break down swinging a stick in a different sport.
Yet there's no doubt that his career-high 53.5 ground ball rate needs to lower at least a few points for Furcal's batting average to approach his career .284 mark.
Also working against another of Furcal's past strengths -- the stolen base -- is that the Dodgers have a slew of players ready to run at the first green light. Pierre (when he's in the lineup upon Manny's return), Hudson, Matt Kemp and even Russell Martin can take off successfully, which mitigates the team's need to run Furcal. And of course the Dodgers might be suspicious of letting Furcal risk his irritable back by sliding too often into second base.
Well, we can safely say that Furcal won't have another span like early 2008. What can't be assured is that he'll resemble even a competent standard league shortstop this year. Too many other players at his position, such as JasonBartlett and Cristian Guzman, have begun vying for attention from owners. Perhaps the entrance of Manny into the lineup will enable Furcal to score a few more runs and see a few better pitches, but lineup protection can be an overrated measure of a player's fantasy value.
It's promising that Furcal still sees the ball well at the plate, but any owner should be scared away by a player who needs to sit once or twice a week to stay healthy. Moreover, it's disconcerting when even with the rest, the player still isn't making the necessary contact at the plate to turn himself into a healthy addition in standard leagues. Considering his trade value is at nearly zilch, the best owners can hope for is a chance that Manny's return can accelerate Furcal's '09 production.
Give him a couple weeks in front of Ramirez to see if Furcal can retain any of his magic from '08. If not, and if his contact rate is still at 86 or 87 percent by then, you might have to release him and hope he's on the free agent list if he ever begins to start a surge in the season's second half.
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