But the front office flipped the script Friday morning when it announced that slugging first baseman and outfielder Allen Craig has been signed to a five-year contract that will make him a core piece of the Redbirds long after Furcal has faded into retirement.
The grumbling about Furcal was replaced all over town with breathless discussions about Craig's new deal.
The move was a surprise for a couple of reasons. First, Craig wasn't even arbitration eligible yet. While the Los Angeles of Anaheim chose to renew young star Mike Trout's contract for $510,000 after a season in which he was Rookie of the Year in the American League and runner up for the junior circuit's Most Valuable Player Award, the Cardinals chose to give Craig $1.75 million this season and a total of $31 million in guaranteed money to buy out his arbitration years and one season of free agency -- two if the Redbirds pick up Craig's $13-million option for 2018.
Second, while there has been much talk about ace pitcher Adam Wainwright's contract status, Craig wasn't even on the radar with four years to go before he could even hit the open market.
General Manager John Mozeliak must have been pretty fearful about the kind of money Craig, a .300 hitter in 238 games over parts of three major league seasons would get in arbitration with a couple more good seasons. He's hit 37 homers and knocked in 150 runs which would average to 25 homers and 102 RBIs if he played a full, 162-game schedule.
But that's the problem. Craig hasn't played close to 162 games in a season yet. His career high was 119 last year when the 28-year-old former eighth round draft pick missed more than the first month of the season due to knee surgery. He played 75 games in 2011, limited by the same knee injury which he suffered running into a railing while chasing down a ball in right field against the Houston Astros. Craig has also been limited in spring training this year, making his debut in the field on the day he signed his new contract thanks to a sore throwing shoulder.
The Cardinals gambled $9 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017 that Craig is going to stay healthy and productive. The 2011 World Series star could turn out to be a bargain if he wins a batting title or a major award over the next five years. Otherwise, the team doesn't seem to be getting much back on its investment because it could have controlled Craig's rights for four more years without giving him any guaranteed money.
Another potential problem with the deal for Craig is that it might irritate the guy on the other side of the infield.
David Freese had to argue with the Cardinals about a one-year contract to avoid a contentious arbitration hearing, eventually settling for $3.15 million over one season. He's got to be chapped that he's a year older than Craig with 348 games under his belt in the big leagues and similar numbers; a major league batting average of .296 with a projected 17 homers and 87 RBIs over a 162-game season. He's a local folk hero after hitting a triple to save the Cardinals from defeat in Game Six of the 2011 World Series and a home run in extra innings to win the game. Yet he's not the one who got the security.
Freese wouldn't be human if he wasn't at least a little bit jealous that the Redbirds took care of his teammate for life but took a wait and see attitude with him. Maybe the club is working a deal behind the scenes as we speak. But it is also possible that Freese, with a sketchier history off the field and a longer history of injuries, isn't in St. Louis' long term plans.
Either way, if the Cardinals are able to ink Wainwright to an extension -- and Mozeliak has indicated this week that's he's confident that's going to happen -- the team will have control of four of its five starters, it's catcher, first baseman, second baseman, left fielder, centerfielder and future right fielder Oscar Tavares for at least the next four years. And it can still keep Freese for at least couple more years through arbitration.
So the contract ought to guarantee St. Louis fans, despite the loss of Furcal and starting pitching Chris Carpenter this spring, that there will be no tear down and rebuilding of a club with a bumper crop of young talent on the horizon.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.