With the melodrama of indecision surrounding the foreseeable future of Rafael Furcal finally settled in favor of the Los Angeles Dodgers, his most recent team, at the expense of his former team, the Atlanta Braves, manager Joe Torre's defending National League West Champions will start the 2009 season with a hold-over left side of the infield.
Actually... barring injuries... with the earlier re-signing of free agent Casey Blake to another three year contract, also with a fourth year option, that sets the Dodgers at shortstop and third base for the next three years.
The durability factor is a key concern since Blake turned 35 in August and the 31 year old Furcal has been hampered by injuries the past two seasons and played only 35 regular season games last year.
However, the shortstop passed his team physical exam Friday, and the signing was completed.
But what a job the switch-hitting speedster did when he was at the top of the Dodgers line-up!
From Opening Day through May 5th when he injured his back in a game against the Mets, Furcal was batting .366 with 12 doubles, two triples and five home runs for a team-leading .597 slugging percentage! Very simply, he was the Dodgers offense, also stealing eight bases in 11 attempts and setting the table for the slowly developing Los Angeles "youth movement" exemplified by Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier and Blake DeWitt. (And had the decade's biggest free agent bust, Andruw Jones, come even close to hitting his ballooning weight, Torre's boys would have been running away with the West.)
Following a four-game, end-of-season tune-up which dropped his 2008 batting average to .357 and an on-base figure of .439, Furcal was one of the sparks of the Dodgers surprising three-game sweep of the heavily-favored Chicago Cubs in the National League Divisional Series before having a horrendous, three-error close-out Game Five against the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
In eight 2008 post-season games Furcal batted eight for 31 with nine runs scored.
Clearly Furcal has the tools of a championship caliber shortstop, withstanding his uncharacteristic flubs in the final post-season game. And he has displayed them with consistency throughout his nine-season major league career, with a batting average of .286, extra-base power, and the speed to swipe 259 bases in 324 attempts (80%).
And the simple fact is that the Los Angeles franchise doesn't have anyone near the major league level developing in its farm system that can provide on a daily basis what a healthy Furcal can, and the free agent market was not promising. Angel Berroa was an emergency fill-in when Furcal went down last May, but he never came close to regaining his 2003 Rookie of the Year form for the Kansas City Royals, and was released earlier this month.
A rumored interest in trading for Jack Wilson was soured by the Pirates demand for young Chin-lung Hu and two minor league prospects. And Wilson is not the player that Furcal has shown himself to be.
Obviously General Manager Ned Colletti, burned by his big bucks, multi-year contacts with Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones (and his heart-on-his-sleeve re-signing of Mark Sweeney who hit the end of the road with a sickening thud before the signatures were dry), approached the Furcal and Blake signings with some caution, the former was indisputably the best shortstop option on the market, and latter was of known quality at a position which has been, with the exception of Ron Cey, a perennial question mark since the franchise moved to the West Coast.
So if all goes reasonably well, the Dodgers are set at short and third for the next three years, and they didn't put owner Frank McCourt on Powerty Row to do it.
And even with the curious inking of aging free agent Mark Loretta as utility infield insurance, there's still enough money to take a run at last year's 75-day (including post-season) savior, Manuel Aristides Ramirez or perhaps a starting pitcher, something the team probably should address with the loss of two front line starters, dependable Derek Lowe and one-time ace Brad Penny, and the potential return-to-form of injury-sidelined, soon-to-be-36-years-old Schmidt one of the biggest unanswered questions for 2009.