Rafael Furcal has been an integral part of the Atlanta Braves for the last six seasons. He was a young rookie back in 2000 when the Braves' Nation fell in love with him, and now that he's a free agent, not many people want to see him leave.
There are a few easy things we can say. First, Furcal wants to remain in Atlanta. He loves it here and considers the Braves to be his family. Second, the Braves would love to keep Furcal, as evidenced by the seriousness of their negotiations. Bobby Cox loves him, as do his teammates.
But the economics of the game can make those type of things irrevelant. Furcal has established himself as one of the top shortstops in the game, and when you're at that level, you're going to be paid a good deal of money. But the question is how much is too much?
Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies got a deal earlier in the year for five seasons and $40 million dollars. Furcal is arguably better than Rollins, and that means the $8 million that Rollins got annually may be the starting point in talks with Furcal. Then you consider that Orlando Cabrera got $32 million over 4 years from the Angels last December, along with Edgar Renteria getting $40 million over 4 years from the Red Sox.
Yeah, Furcal is getting ready to be paid.
Should the Braves spend that much money on Furcal? There's no doubt he's valuable, but is he that valuable? Is Furcal worth $9 or $10 million, which is certainly what the New York Mets or Chicago Cubs are already rumored to be ready to offer Furcal?
Well, let's look at the big picture. One thing to keep in mind is that the Braves have some short-term and long-term replacements on hand if Furcal were to leave. Wilson Betemit could easily step in and get a shot as a regular at shortstop, his natural position. But some do question whether or not the taller Betemit could handle the full-time duty at the position.
I've always been a huge Wilson Betemit supporter. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2001 when Betemit wowed everyone with his terrific season. In fact, Betemit was so impressive that some wondered if he was going to move Furcal to second base. This was before Marcus Giles established himself at second. But Betemit struggled in spring training in 2002, showing he was not ready to make the similar jump Furcal had made two years earlier. Then he got hurt, changed his position, and took longer than expected to make it to the big leagues.
If Betemit cannot adequately replace Furcal, the Braves have several long-term options at that position. Luis Hernandez struggled in 2005 in AA, but he's still going to be only 22 when he returns to Mississippi next season. Yunel Escobar was terrific in his first season in the Braves' organization, and some believe he could be ready at some point next season.
And then there's Elvis - Elvis Andrus. He's a 17-year old wonder boy that has everyone in the organization talking. He might be great, but it might take him three more years before he's ready for the big leagues. But you have to think about him when making a decision on the position for the long-term.
With an $80 million payroll, you have to wonder whether it's smart to commit $10 million of that to one player, especially after five players (Smoltz, Jones, Jones, Hudson, and Hampton) already count for 60% of that payroll now. There won't be a whole lot more room left for the other 19 players if Furcal eats up 1/8 of the payroll.
Furcal is a terrific player, but when looking at all the reasons to sign him and all the reasons not to sign him, logic kicks in. He's just not worth the money he's going to receive, and with viable replacements already in the organization, the Braves would be better suited to spend that large amount of money on areas they need serious help at (like the bullpen).
It's going to be interesting to see what happens in the next two weeks. The Braves are meeting with Furcal today in Atlanta. If they do keep him, the roster could see somewhat of a shakeup in order to afford him. I think it's 50/50. If the Braves wind up offering Furcal a four-year deal in the $36 million range, he'll probably stay. But anything beyond that is going to be awfully hard to do for a team capped at $80 million.
It seems unlikely that Furcal will be back, but they wouldn't be meeting with him if they didn't think there was a chance to sign him. This decision will dictate the remainder of the plans for the winter, and therefore it is drastically important.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.
21. Should the Braves re-sign Rafael Furcal?
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