(Normally I’d talk third base here, but that’s tied in with the backup infield situation so I want to tackle those two consecutively.)
I still don’t have a handle on Rafael, and I don’t think that the Braves do either. He was a really productive player last year, hitting .292/.352/.443. He still didn’t walk as much as he did as a rookie, but more than made up for that with added power, and set career highs in runs, RBI, hits, doubles, triples, and homers. He also addressed concerns I had with his speed by going 25 for 27 in stolen base attempts and grounding into only one double play. If he maintains this level of hitting and baserunning and can build on his considerable defensive skills, he’s a heck of a player. But he can’t afford to go back into the overly free-swinging style of 2001-02. He made a lot more contact last year, and I’m certain that seeing more pitches helped that.
Defensively, he committed a lot of errors but other than that was more than adequate. His arm helps a lot, as does his speed. I’ll give up ten or fifteen extra errors to get the same number of extra double plays plus 30 or 40 more assists… Going into last season, I thought that the Braves might be looking to move Furcal rather than keep paying him as he got more expensive. But his big year, combined with the sudden lack of other shortstop candidates in the system (with Betemit already moved and Kelly Johnson soon to follow) mean that they might look to wrap him up long-term. He’s only two years away from free agency now… Home runs, by year: 4, 4, 8, 15. I don’t see him doubling his homers again, but you never know, do you?