The Braves have reportedly swooped in and signed free agent Rafael Furcal, who came up through the Braves organization and played the first six years of his career in Atlanta. He battled several off-field issues as a Brave, from the controversy over his age to his DUI arrest, but the 31-year-old shortstop will be coming back to the team with which he started his career.
Furcal played three years as a Dodger and has battled persistent injuries for two years. His signing is the type of high-risk, high-reward move that could pay off tremendously if he can stay healthy for a full season. The Braves’ depth mitigates the risk of signing him, since they already have an established double-play duo in tow, with Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson.
Early reports are that Johnson will move to left field, opening up second base for Furcal. You might choose to believe that the Braves will be more aggressively shopping either Escobar or Johnson, as has been rumored for much of the offseason, although depth would be nice given Furcal’s recent history.
The Braves are getting a good player in this deal, although Furcal never really lived up to the super-speedster hype that he generated by stealing 96 bases as a minor-leaguer in 1999. That version of Furcal attempted a steal nearly two-thirds of the time he reached first base, but this version is a bit tamer on the basepaths, trying for an extra base about a fifth of the time. He has still stolen bases effectively despite the injuries.
In 2008, Furcal got off to a torrid start at the plate, and he finished with an OPS+ of 164, showcasing some extra-base power to go with an abnormally high .357 average. His average on balls in play was .380, which likely isn’t sustainable with a line drive rate under 20%, but he’s still a .290-or-so hitter with a consistent (but not spectacular) walk rate and some moderate power. He’ll be an effective leadoff hitter for a team that has lacked firepower at the top of the order for the last few seasons.
I’m honestly not sure how this changes the Braves’ current pursuit of a second front-line starting pitcher. Yunel Escobar was considered a key piece in a possible trade for Jake Peavy before the Braves even had a Plan B at short, but it wouldn’t be a terrible decision for the Braves to hold onto all the cards they currently have. Furcal or Escobar could play third to spell Chipper, which would still allow Martin Prado some playing time at second (if Johnson does indeed move to LF, which is another story). I’m not terribly high on Prado myself, at least not as a starter, but the Braves could do worse for a utility infielder who gets 300-or-so ABs.
So the Braves’ 2009 lineup looks something like this:
That’s not bad, but is it enough to beat the Phillies or Mets? I’m not sure yet.