The St. Louis Cardinals may be in some real trouble now.
An MRI on Rafael Furcal’s injured elbow Friday revealed the shortstop has a torn ligament and will be out for the rest of the season. In a season mired with injuries, the Cards may have finally taken a hit they cannot survive.
The Redbirds have been struggling this week, but the last several games are simply a reflection of a season-long issue they’ve had with sustaining offense. Sometimes they look like the best hitting team in all of baseball; sometimes—like the past few games, for instance—they look like the absolute worst. But they still found themselves holding on to a playoff spot, and as soon as last Sunday were only six games out of first place in the NL Central.
How are they doing it, in spite of such streaky offensive output? Pitching and defense, of course. And that’s going to be the problem going forward.
Furcal is on the wrong side of the prime of his career. Whether he is an elite defender anymore or not is certainly debatable. But he was certainly the best defender the Cardinals had on the infield when he was healthy. When the Cards acquired him at the trade deadline last July, Furcal immediately helped shore up a shaky defense up the middle. When a team’s pitchers are taught to pitch to contact, Ryan Theriot cannot be the everyday shortstop if the team expects to be successful. The Colby Rasmus trade may have been the “blockbuster” everyone drooled over, but without trading for Furcal there’s no way the Cardinal defense holds up for the stretch run.
Offensively, Furcal contributed as a solid leadoff hitter—something the Cards didn’t have up to that point. Again, his slash line wasn’t what it used to be in his prime. But Furcal set the table better than anyone they had before acquiring him, and he made the hitters behind him better.
His 2012 started off good, but recently health became an issue. Manager Mike Matheny started batting Furcal down in the lineup because his numbers nose-dived. He still made plays, but his ailing back had to have an effect on his range and defense. Then, on a throw across the diamond, his elbow gave out. The way things have gone for the Cards this year, their only possible reaction is “It figures.”
But now the Cards have more to worry about than ever before this season, even with Lance Berkman nearing a return and Chris Carpenter appearing to be ahead of schedule in his rehab. After unloading Brendan Ryan and Tyler Greene in the last few years, they have very little depth at shortstop. Pete Kozma has not been the answer before now; there is little reason to believe he’s the answer now. Daniel Descalso plays a decent short, but he is also needed at second base. Ryan Jackson may have a bright future, and it may be at shortstop. But he just made his major league debut a few weeks back.
The Cardinals still have that pitch to contact staff—but when contact is made, who’s going to catch the ball? Less range at short means third base and second base need to get to more balls. The entire infield gets a little more porous. And that is not a good thing for a team like the St. Louis Cardinals. Offensively, while Furcal was struggling, it certainly doesn’t appear anyone they replace him with will be tons better.
It certainly isn’t impossible to overcome this injury, but aside from losing Yadier Molina for an extended period this is just about the worst thing to happen to the Cards’ position players. They may not be chasing a playoff spot, but they have teams on their tail and some tough series yet to play in the final weeks of the season. They need something to break their way…soon.