The deal isn't officially official yet, but all indications are that Rafael Furcal is returning to Atlanta on a three-year deal. Details are obviously sketchy right now, but various reports say that the contract costs about $30 million and includes a vesting option for the fourth year. Furcal's still in the Dominican Republic, his agent says there's no agreement yet and Furcal would still have to pass a physical, no small thing for a player who missed most of 2008 with a back injury.
It's an interesting move, those caveats notwithstanding. I don't know if Furcal's actually better than Yunel Escobar at this point. Furcal's a better baserunner, and he was having a great season (.357/.439/.573) before the back injury struck him down. But Escobar hit .288/.366/.401 as a 25 year old, and according to The Fielding Bible, he was the second-best defensive shortstop in the game, making 21 plays more than the average shortstop. Furcal's at an age where he's likely to decline, and Escobar's not in danger of falling off the cliff any time soon.
So the question then becomes what happens in the middle infield. Furcal's agent says that the Braves have talked to his client about moving to second base, which would leave Escobar entrenched at short and shift Kelly Johnson back to left field. It seems like a rather crummy thing to do to Johnson, who battled the outfield to a draw in 2005, moved to second base in 2007 and adapted to a difficult position with relative alacrity and adroitness.
Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com and usually serves as a shill for the organization, says that's the plan. It's an appealing idea, because it allows the Braves to keep Escobar and Johnson, bring Furcal into the fold and move a competent bat to the outfield. Johnson had a 108 OPS+ last year, which isn't particularly good for a corner outfielder, but he'll be just 27 next year and can look forward to some improvement. And when you've watched Gregor Blanco, Jeff Francoeur and Matt Diaz flail around at the plate, the idea of getting some production from the outfield is appealing.
Notwithstanding all that, however, an Escobar trade seems to be a distinct possibility. He was the centerpiece of the Jake Peavy talks. While all reports say that the Braves and Padres have not re-ignited those conversations, doing so is as simple as pressing a few buttons on a cell phone. In this scenario, the "Furcal to second, Johnson to left" chatter is a clever little headfake designed to give Frank Wren some plausible deniability in those trade talks.
"Escobar? Yeah, I might be willing to trade him. Don't need to. We'll just move Furcal to second, Johnson to left and keep Yunel at short. You know, now that I say it aloud, that sounds like a really good idea. I'll talk to you later Opposing General Manager, I have to go draw up a 36-year contract extention for Escobar."
Wren is still looking for that second starting pitcher, and Escobar's his best asset in that quest. If the Braves sign Frank Wolf or some other random shlub, it's probably an indicator that Escobar and Johnson are sticking around for awhile. (One of them could still go in a deal for a slugging outfielder)