When Rafael Furcal is your first line of defense, a second line of defense should be mandatory.
Brian Bocock once started for a Major League Baseball team on Opening Day.
This is a familiar legend for Giants fans, but it's worth recounting for fans of the other 29 teams. In 2008, eight different Giants lined up down the third-base line as Navy jets roared above and red-white-and-blue bunting rippled in the wind, and one of those Giants was Brian Bocock. It's a true story. The season before his start, he was demoted from High-A to Low-A because he struggled offensively. Fewer than eight months later, he was starting in the big leagues.
I'd like to say there was a good reason for this, that Bocock hit .400 in the AFL or something. But it had nothing to do with performance; the Giants didn't know what else to do. Their regular starting shortstop got hurt, and there wasn't a viable backup on either the 25-man or 40-man roster. The injury happened late in spring, so it caught everyone unaware.
The worst part of this story: The regular shortstop in question was a 41-year-old Omar Vizquel. Plan A was to start a 41-year-old at shortstop. Plan B was a pair of Groucho glasses in an otherwise empty medical kit. It was baffling then, and it's even more baffling in retrospect. The Giants signed Aaron Rowand and called it an offseason, pretending that there wasn't any risk with starting a shortstop who was six or seven years older than a standard old shortstop.
Now let's talk about the 2013 Cardinals. If the Giants had a quiet offseason leading up to their 2008, it was like the Blue Jays' trading spree compared to what the Cardinals did before this season. The Cards signed Ty Wigginton for two years. That begins and ends the offseason for the Cardinals -- a single utility player, who was limited to the corner positions, where the team was otherwise strong.
At shortstop, the plan was to start Rafael Furcal.
Oh, he's not 41 yet, but his tendons and ligaments and muscles are old souls. When Furcal was in Double-A, he probably made non-ironic grunting sounds when he bent down to pick up a pen. Other than maybe Grady Sizemore or Nick Johnson, there isn't a more predictable injury candidate among position players in baseball. What was your honest reaction to the news that Furcal was going to see Dr. James Andrew about his elbow? Did it even matter that it was his elbow? The headline could have read, "Rafael Furcal seeing doctor for problems with body part," and you wouldn't even have clicked through.
Plan B is … well, about Plan B. Pete Kozma is not Brian Bocock. Kozma hit 11 home runs in Triple-A last year, and Bocock couldn't hit 11 home runs in a decade's worth of Rock 'N' Jock Softball Challenges, so it's not fair to compare them apples-to-apples. But Kozma isn't much of a hitter, even by shortstop standards:
Repeating Triple-A in a hitter's league, Kozma managed to improve his OBP by 12 points, but he was still short of the .300 mark in a league where the league-average OBP was .345.
Of course, in 72 at-bats in the majors last year, Kozma hit .333/.383/.569 and added a series-winning hit against the Nationals. You can choose to believe in that level of performance if you're so inclined, but you don't need me to tell you that the 2,429 career at-bats in the minors might -- just might -- have just a little more predictive power.
Dan Moore from Viva El Birdos wonders if the Cardinals are hosed at shortstop now:
What we complain about, then, is that the Cardinals had a chance to do more than cover that worst-case probability while Rafael Furcal tried to build elbow strength, and they didn't do it. I won't go over the list of free agency options better than Ty Wigginton/Rafael Furcal again, because we-in-aggregate are really complaining about the principle of the thing. We're complaining because we don't know where the Cardinals' upside potential at shortstop is going to come from. Who in the Cardinals' system is going to outplay our reasonable expectations for their shortstop in 2013?
Moore points out that the Cardinals also have Ronny Cedeno now, who is almost certainly a better option than Kozma. I'm not sure if the words "Ronny Cedeno is almost certainly a better option" have ever been typed out before, but here we are. Cedeno is at least replacement level, which Kozma right now would struggle to be. So it could be Cedeno starting at short for the Cardinals on Opening Day.
But the Cardinals should have had one job this offseason: They needed to prepare for Rafael Furcal getting hurt. They needed to assume that he was going to be hurt and consider a 50-game contribution from Furcal to be shortstop gravy. And then they needed to treat the search for a backup shortstop to be the same thing as a search for a starter. Instead, they treated their shortstop situation like a normal team with normal expectations for their incumbent shortstop. The roster is still loaded, so don't take this as a proclamation of doom. But it was a weird oversight, and "weird" is being charitable.
The Cards also lost Chris Carpenter, possibly forever. But they knew they had Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly in reserve, with Trevor Rosenthal available in a pinch. There was a risk with Carpenter, but there was a contingency plan or three already in place. There was no such plan at shortstop.
The Cardinals had one job this offseason. Somewhere in the bowels of Busch Stadium, there's a Post-It note reading, "GET ANOTHER MAJOR-LEAGUE SHORTSTOP." Somehow, they ended up with Ty Wigginton and called it an offseason. It probably won't be the difference between missing or making the playoffs, but it could be. When the team didn't have much to do this winter, why would they take that chance?
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