Last August 30, in an 8-1 loss to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal suffered an elbow injury while making a throw to second base to retire Nationals base runner Edwin Jackson.
It was the last time Cardinal fans saw Furcal in 2012, as he missed the rest of the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that ordinarily requires Tommy John surgery. Pete Kozma had some brilliant moments down the stretch and in the playoffs as the replacement, but eventually was exposed as a below average player when the chips were down.
Furcal never had surgery, with him and the Cards settling on rest and rehab as the best course of action. This is the same approach the Cardinals took with Chris Carpenter for the first half of the 2007 season, and he eventually required surgery. It was the approach taken with Mark Mulder’s shoulder, Mark DeRosa’s wrist and David Freese’s ankle. Eventually, rest and rehab weren’t the answer and surgery was required for all of them, although Mulder and DeRosa never returned to form.
On Sunday, the Cardinals decided to shut Furcal down because of problems with the same elbow. He never had surgery despite having a ligament problem, and the club went through the entire offseason thinking (hoping?) he would be fine. They never pursued a legitimate alternative. It was predictable that he would get hurt again. Whether it was the elbow or something else, he wasn’t going to last. In the last five years, Furcal has played more than 121 games once (150 games in 2009). He has suffered from back, hamstring and ankle injuries. Getting hurt was a matter of when, not if, and everyone who watches the Cardinals, especially those in the front office, knew it.
The Cardinals landed journeyman Ronny Cedeno just before spring training. Cedeno has played for the Cubs, Mariners, Pirates and Mets in his mediocre career. Do you really think he’s been on a club with an expectation of winning? Perhaps part of their recent futility has been BECAUSE of Cedeno. With Chicago, Lou Piniella-a pretty good baseball man-replaced Cedeno with Ryan Theriot.
Among shortstops moved to other teams this off-season were Mike Aviles, who was signed by Toronto and traded to Cleveland. Yunel Escobar, not exactly a four-pillars guy but a terrific defensive player, was traded from Toronto to Miami in the Marlins fire sale, and then to Tampa Bay…where he’s expected to start for the contending Rays. Even a guy like Yuniesky Betancourt, who signed a minor league contract with Philadelphia the same day Cedeno signed with the Cards, has a more substantial resume. I don’t blame the Cardinals for not giving Stephen Drew $9 million, but they could have done more than they did.
Over the years, the Cardinals have had good fortune fall to them, and much of that can be attributed to being prepared. They knew they could play Lance Berkman at first if Albert Pujols left, and that would have been fine. But even when Berkman (predictably) got injured, the Cardinals had Allen Craig ready to step in. When Troy Glaus got hurt (predictably) in 2008 and DeRosa didn’t work out, they had Freese in the wings. When Colby Rasmus wasn’t whey they thought he would be, Jon Jay turned into a serviceable player. When Ryan Franklin imploded in 2011, Jason Motte emerged from the field to close out the World Series. Even going back to sticking with an injured Jason Isringhausen in 2006, the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright turn into an effective closer in October.
In general, the Cardinals have good plans. When Carlos Beltran leaves as a free agent after this season, Oscar Tavares will take his place. With Skip Schumaker gone, the Cardinals have Kolten Wong on the horizon. And with Carpenter hurt and Adam Wainwright perhaps ready to test free agency, we all know the Cardinals have a ton of young pitching waiting in the wings.
But expecting Rafael Furcal to be the shortstop while coming off a torn elbow ligament was silly. There isn’t a shortstop version of Tavares or Wong or Motte or Wainwright in the system. General Manager John Mozeliak admitted last year during the playoffs that the Cardinals planned to release Kozma at least four times.
Not having legitimate competition for Cedeno and Kozma could be catastrophic. After catcher, shortstop is the most important defensive position on the field. I hope the Cards didn’t get too full of themselves…or worse believe that Furcal was going to be the guy to avoid surgery with the injury he had. I hope there’s a plan in place here. Because right now, shortstop for the Redbirds looks like a disaster.