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Furcal Should Concern Cardinals

In a spring training that has included worries about contract negotiations and the health of starting pitchers, the stability of a right elbow ligament for a position player could be the St. Louis Cardinals’ biggest problem as games get underway.

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Shortstop Rafael Furcal received an anti-inflammatory shot in his injured elbow Friday to help ease discomfort created by a bone spur, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Furcal tore a ligament in the elbow Aug. 30 in a game against the Washington Nationals, and he chose to forego surgery in favor of rehab during the offseason. But that decision could come back to haunt Furcal and the Cardinals for the 2013 season.

Furcal has yet to throw or take lefthanded at-bats during camp, and he didn’t sound optimistic about his condition Thursday.

“It still hurts, a lot, when I’m throwing,” Furcal said.

That is very bad news for a Cardinals team that doesn’t have a solid backup option at shortstop.

Pete Kozma played well at the end of last season, but that was a flash of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre career spent languishing in the minor leagues, and the Cardinals have been reluctant to put much faith in Kozma as a major part of the solution at shortstop.

But other than Kozma, the Cardinals are in a world of hurt in one of the most important positions on the field. They signed Ronny Cedeno during the offseason, but he has a career batting average of .247 and hasn’t been able to stick even with bad teams such as the Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets.

The Cardinals looked at making a move for a shortstop during the offseason and reportedly inquired about trading for Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

Cabrera would be an excellent fit with the Cardinals and would fill a position of need, but other teams know the Cardinals are loaded with good, young pitching, and their asking prices are very high.

The Cardinals understandably don’t want to park with their treasure trove of pitching. Pitching and defense are what generally win championships, and decent hitters are usually easier to find than pitchers who can provide productive innings.

But because Furcal didn’t undergo surgery when he first injured his elbow, the Cardinals are in quite a bind just a month before the regular season begins.

Obviously, the decision to have surgery is ultimately that of the player, and the team likely has significant input, but right now the decision to try and rehab rather than have surgery is creating some anxious moments in spring training camp as Furcal struggles to heal enough to play.

Furcal also has a history of injuries that threatened to derail his career. He was an all-star-caliber shortstop with the Atlanta Braves during the first six years of his career, but he has not played more than 100 games in three of the last five years because of various injuries.

The Cardinals knew they were getting a fragile player when they traded for Furcal at the 2011 trading deadline, and they got quite a bit of production from him before the injury. Furcal has been a .259 hitter with 176 hits in 171 games played in the year and a half he’s been a Cardinals player, but the elbow injury is looking like it could be a problem longer than just the next couple of weeks.

So if Furcal can’t start the season, the Cardinals will have to make a decision just as important as Furcal’s decision about having surgery. They will have to make a deal to get a shortstop, which likely would cost highly regarded pitching prospects, or they’ll have to hope a Kozma-Cedeno platoon at shortstop is good enough to make the playoffs.

Otherwise, the Cardinals could have another one of those incredibly frustrating situations when they count on a player to eventually get healthy, and he never does.

That has happened repeatedly with Cardinals pitchers throughout the years, and it usually results in a not-so-great season because the team didn’t make necessary changes while hoping the injured player would return.

Hopefully, shortstop isn’t the Cardinals’ downfall this year, but it is already the position that will cause the most anxiety this spring.

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