Monday, May 14, 2012

Furcal & Beltran Have Much in Common

I don't care how good a baseball team is, they are going to have more than a few bad stretches of play during a 162-game schedule.  The Cardinals are currently experiencing one of those unsettling runs, which began with that discouraging twelve-inning fiasco last Friday night at the hands of the Atlanta Braves.  Inspired by their resilient victory over their nemesis, the Braves polished off the Redbirds on Saturday and Sunday to complete the three-game sweep.  Things didn't get any better for St Louis on Monday night; the best pitcher in baseball to have no wins to his credit - Ryan Dempster - pitched well enough to keep the Cardinals in their funk.  Fortunately, Yadier Molina's walk-off ninth-inning single in Tuesday's finale vs the Cubs salvaged an uneven 7-6 win, to close out the home-stand with a 1-4 record.

With the Redbirds beginning a West Coast swing in San Francisco on Wednesday, Jaime Garcia will try to get his act together after a couple of recent less-than-stellar starts, as he squares off against the Giants' Madison Bumgarner.  Perhaps the pitcher-friendly environment in San Fran will give the Cards lefty a boost.

Although the offense has been a bit inconsistent lately, the Cardinals still lead the NL in runs scored (198), home runs (148), batting average (.285), on base percentage (.356), and slugging percentage (.469).  A big part of that success has been the remarkable performances of both Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran; a couple of free agents signed by the Cardinals after the 2011 season, who are doing quite well in the early going of the 2012 season; to say the least.

This talented duo, teammates for the first time in their careers, have much in common.  The thirty-five year-old Beltran was the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year as a member of the Kansas City Royals; the thirty-four year-old Furcal was the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year as a member of the Atlanta Braves.  Beltran, a career .283 hitter with excellent power, has averaged 106 RBI per 162 games throughout his career; while Furcal, a career .284 hitter with excellent speed, has averaged 108 runs scored per 162 games throughout his career.

Unfortunately, both have had a history of knee problems; both have had seasons shortened due to those problems, at one time or another.  Furcal, who joined the Cardinals late last season to help the franchise achieve its NL-best eleventh World Championship, became a free agent at season's end, and was quickly signed to a two-year deal by the St Louis front office.  A good move for both parties.

Beltran was also a free agent at the conclusion of the 2011 season, and agreed to a two-year deal of his own to play for the Redbirds.  Still another good move for both parties, which probably would not have happened had another free agent - Albert Pujols - decided to stay in St Louis; rather, the former Cardinal icon chose the deal which gave him the most money; a deal he probably now wishes he'd never made.

While Albert Pujols languishes as a non-productive member of the LA Angels of Anaheim - a moniker team owner Arte Moreno adopted to generate more revenue for his franchise - his replacement, Carlos Beltran thrives as the most productive member of the St Louis Cardinals; and that's quite an accomplishment, since the entire team has been hitting like the 1927 New York Yankees so far this year.  Carlos has been doing a great impression of Babe Ruth to this point, as evidenced by his team-leading 13 home runs and 32 RBI.  If he keeps up this pace, Beltran will have belted about 60 home runs and driven in about 150 for the season; just like the Bambino, himself did in '27.  Okay, he actually drove in 164 that season; but this is the Sultan of Swat we're talking about.

Unlike the Sultan of Swat, manager Mike Matheny often uses the versatile Carlos in the number-two spot in the lineup, batting behind his new pal Furcal, who has been doing a nice job getting on base in the early going; so nice in fact, he's either leading the league in hits on any given day, or very close to it.  Rafael has also shown enough plate discipline to draw bases on balls with remarkable frequency, keeping his OBP well above .400.  In short, he's been the ideal lead-off hitter for the Redbirds, with these numbers to support that claim:  .359 BA/.425 OBP/.486 SLG.

Beltran has been the ideal power hitter on a team that has been at or near the top of the NL in home runs, since Day One of the 2012 season.  A remarkably smooth hitter with a beautiful swing from either side of the plate, Carlos has proven how well he can still play, when healthy; and so far, he's been relatively  healthy (although knee trouble has flared up recently), which has enabled him to post these very healthy numbers:  .295 BA/.403 OBP/.648 SLG

Likewise, the ability of Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal has never been in doubt, as long as he can avoid those nagging injuries which have frequently grounded him in the past.  Well, so far so good this year.

Although the Cardinals have been struggling lately, the big picture still looks good; Mike Matheny has used the running game with refreshing regularity; while Furcal and Beltran are no longer speed demons at this stage of their careers, they still run quite well.  Rafael, who has stolen as many as 46 bases in a single season (2005), already has seven, in eight attempts; while Carlos, who has stolen as many as 42 bases in a single season (2004), has already swiped five out of six; another encouraging trend for both players, and for their new team.

So yes, both Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran have much in common; both long-time veterans have had great success in their careers, along with troubling injuries.  Both are working under two-year contracts, and both have gotten off to a tremendous start this year, playing at an unprecedented level of excellence; and that's saying a lot.  The concern, especially for Beltran, is how well his knees hold up for the long haul.  Admittedly, it's a dicey issue; Cards fans are keeping their fingers crossed.

If Furcal and Beltran stay healthy, there's little doubt the Cardinals will be making a return engagement for postseason play.  For the Cardinals, this was money well spent, considering the combined income for both players is a mere twenty million dollars per year.  In today's environment, getting the services of two highly productive star players for millions less than the price of one fading superstar is quite a bargain.

I still like this team and I still like this one-two punch their free agents are delivering.  After all, there are lots of reasons the Cardinals are still in first place; Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran just happen to be two of them.  Let's hope they can continue making their contributions on a regular basis for the balance of the season.

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