By Marc Normandin
The oft-injured Rafael Furcal is hurt once again, and will miss the entire 2013 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Given his propensity for injury, questions arose as to why the Cardinals weren't better prepared in terms of having a Furcal backup on hand. To be fair to the Cardinals, though, just who were they supposed to get?
Sure, they could have traded from their highly impressive farm system, but there might be more value in simply riding things out for a while with what they do have at short, and saving the prospects for their many years of future Cardinals' service. That seems to be the plan in St. Louis at present, and with good reason: You see, most shortstops are not very good.
In fact, that's exactly what led the Cardinals to Furcal in the first place. The Cardinals had Ryan Theriot at shortstop for 91 games in 2011... excuse me, this Ryan Theriot...
...and made a deal with the Dodgers to acquire Furcal at the deadline. At the time, Furcal was hitting all of .197/.272/.248, but picked things up with the Cards and finished at .231/.298/.348. The Cardinals won the World Series despite the combination handicap of Theriot and post-30-years-old Furcal at short, and nearly made it again in 2012 despite Furcal's positively meh .264/.325/.346 showing. A lot of that has to do with the fact that their competition didn't have anyone productive at the position, either.
As a unit, shortstops hit .257/.310/.378 in 2012. In 2011, the average shortstop hit .263/.317/.380. 2010, .262/.319/.374. Again, there just aren't very many great, or even good, hitters at the position, and that's not exactly new: there's a reason the trio of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra were so special 15 years ago. Someone like Troy Tulowitzki stands out because he's so much better than every other shortstop, and someone like Jose Reyes -- a very good hitter who occasionally flashes better than that -- ends up near the top of the pile offensively because there's no one else to challenge his claim.
Here's the thing, though. It's not as if the teams with the best shortstops are the ones making the playoffs each year, because shortstops are so scarce that the inherent advantage leads to league domination. In reality, it's the teams who have been winning in spite of their shortstops who have had the most success in the last few years. No, really! Let's look at each of the last three seasons, those seasons' respective playoff clubs, and those teams' shortstops.
The 2010 Playoffs
The Rangers had Elvis Andrus, who managed just a .643 OPS despite playing in the hitter's paradise of the Ballpark at Arlington. Their opponent, the Rays, featured Jason Bartlett and his .254/.324/.350 line. While his defense was previously excellent, like that of Andrus, leg injuries had slowed Bartlett, and he'd be dealt that off-season.
While Jeter is a Hall of Famer, he didn't hit like one in 2010, and his defense has been a known issue for years. The Yankees' opponent was the Twins, and J.J. Hardy, who was actually solid in the sense that he managed to slug .394 with a .320 on-base percentage.
Over in the NL, you had Jimmy Rollins (.243/.320/.374) and the Phillies squaring off against Orlando Cabrera (.263/.303/.354) and the Reds. Then there were the Giants, who acquired Edgar Renteria and his useful-enough .707 OPS in time to face the Braves and Alex Gonzalez, who thankfully fielded well, because he hit .240/.291/.386 for Atlanta.
All of these teams had strengths elsewhere that allowed them to compensate for having someone who was merely good enough at short. Guys like Andrus, Bartlett, Hardy, Rollins, and Gonzalez could field enough to compensate for bats that didn't really wow. If you can get a shortstop like that who isn't a complete bust on both sides of the ball, then it can be enough; hell, in the Reds' case, they didn't even have someone who could do that, yet there they were in the NLCS.
The 2011 Playoffs
Jhonny Peralta sticks out here, as he posted a 122 OPS+ with the Tigers. After that, though, it's downhill for everyone. The Tigers faced the Yanks in the first round, and again, Jeter's bat was far beyond adequate, but only stood out for relative reasons. Andrus was better with the Rangers this time around, posting an OPS above the average at short, but barely. He took on the Rays, who fielded a number of awful options at short throughout the year, all combining for a .193/.256/.282 line on the season. They wouldn't have been much better off had they kept Bartlett, either, as he hit all of .245/.308/.307.
The Senior Circuit saw the aforementioned Furcal representing the Cardinals, taking on Rollins and the Phils. Rollins, like Jeter, had a good enough year at the plate. Then there's possibly the most poignant of shortstop match-ups in the first round: the Diamondbacks, who played futility infielder Willie Bloomquist and a cast of characters at short after Stephen Drew's broken ankle, against the Brewers, who featured Yuniesky Betancourt and his .271 on-base percentage. Bloomquist and Betancourt are often the focus of jokes from the statistically inclined, and often with good reason. Yet, here we are, just a year ago, with both shortstops on playoff teams. It's not a cruel joke played by the universe: shortstops just aren't very good.
The 2012 Playoffs
J.J. Hardy hit just .238/.282/.389 for the Orioles, but his glove helps make up for part of that. Andrus, at this point, you're acquainted with. Then there's Furcal again, Jeter with a season where his bat looked like that of the years that made him a household name, and Peralta's return to reality, where he's not a very good hitter.
It was the Athletics' turn to go with the defense-first shortstop this time around in Cliff Pennington, but they weren't alone, as the World Series-winning Giants used Brandon Crawford and his .248/.304/.349 line. The Braves had some luck using Andrelton Simmons, their shortstop of the future, but the Reds weren't so lucky with their own in Zack Cozart, who managed a .288 on-base percentage without the pop to compensate. Then again, they made the playoffs anyway, continuing this running theme.
Ian Desmond joined Jeter as the only hitter to really stand out, thanks to slugging over .500 and hitting 25 homers while supplying the Nationals with plenty of defense. Desmond is, as you can see, the rarity, though: those shortstops who can both hit and field, and do each well above the mean, just don't seem to exist all that often.
So it's obvious that having a mediocre shortstop isn't a death knell for a team, but they have to have something to compensate for it. The 2012 Red Sox featured Mike Aviles, whose quality defense but underwhelming bat would have fit snugly with any of these playoff clubs from the last three years. Since they were missing, oh, just about everything else by season's end, however, things didn't work out quite so well for them as for those listed above.
This is all to the good for the Cardinals, as they still have plenty of productive players left. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina are all forces in the lineup. David Freese, Jon Jay, and whatever combination of Daniel Descalso and Matt Carpenter comes to pass at second base should all be at least above-average for their positions. The pitching staff still has Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, and Shelby Miller, and there are plenty of arms in the bullpen.
Sure, Peter Kozma might be their new shortstop, and he's not a particularly great defender -- Baseball America lists him as "surehanded" with no real strengths nor weaknesses. His minor-league numbers at the plate aren't anything to admire, either. However, those facts haven't stopped other clubs from succeeding in the recent past, not when someone who neither helps nor hurts qualifies as a respectable shortstop. Especially not when the rest of the roster is as loaded as that of the Cardinals.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book " The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @ Marc_Normandin.