Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Furcalled From Atlanta

Well, that'll teach me to jump the gun.

Rafael Furcal is not returning to Atlanta. Once again, this isn't official just yet, and we saw what happened the last time I jumped on an unofficial Furcal story, but it seems safe to say that this one is a done deal.

The Braves' agreement with Furcal quite obviously was not. There's been a lot of talk about the "term sheet" Frank Wren sent to Paul Kinzer, Furcal's agent, early Tuesday morning. According to Dave O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, these sheets are considered "gold" in the baseball community. Agents don't request them unless they consider a deal struck. Kinzer isn't explicitly denying that Wren sent him the term sheet, but he emphasized that he didn't have a "signed contract" with the Braves.

There's going to be an annoying back-and-forth over the next few days between Kinzer and the Braves, but right now the most logical interpretation is that Kinzer used the Braves to extract more money and more years out of the Dodgers. (LA was unwilling to guarantee a third year before these last couple of days) This is a high-powered game Kinzer and Wren are playing, so it's probably naive to express shock when an agent pulls something like this kind of thing for a client. Furcal quite clearly didn't want to leave Los Angeles, which I guess is understandable. Some people find sitting in traffic very calming.

But this has been an infuriating off-season, with Wren unable to close the deal on a few big-time transactions. First it was withdrawing from the Jake Peavy talks. Then it was getting out-bid by the Yankees for AJ Burnett. And now the mess with Furcal.

Taken individually, none of those are disastrous and all are understandable. Kevin Towers was asking for a pound of flesh in exchange for Peavy, and Wren made the logical decision to keep his skin intact. Lots of teams have been out-bid by the Yankees, and I can't say it fills me with sadness to know the Braves won't be paying Burnett $16 million a year for the next five seasons. And Wren certainly seems to have done everything right in trying to sign Furcal; if he doesn't want to leave LA, he doesn't want to leave LA, and nothing short of an absurd contract would entice him to do so. Besides all that, as I wrote yesterday, I'm not even sure Furcal is better than incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar.

But when you come into the off-season with set goals, money to spend and a solid minor league system to draw upon, it's at once perplexing and distressing when no one seems willing to take your cash. Wren's throwing money at players, but no one's biting.

There's a bigger problem here, namely, Atlanta's repeated issues with agents. It was no secret that John Schuerholz loathed Scott Boras in the last several years of his tenure, and Boras made no secret of the fact that the feeling was mutual. Considering that Boras represents some of the best players in the game and that Schuerholz, despite his feelings, kept trading for his clients, that was inconvenient.

Still, everyone hates Boras and certain teams refuse to deal with him at all. But now it seems like there's yet another agent the Braves have on their verboten list. This is growing tiresome.

Again, all of these incidents have reasonable explanations. Boras held a grudge against Schuerholz for going behind his back and signing Andruw Jones to an extension back in 2001 by dealing with Andruw's father. And now Kinzer pulls this stint.

Ultimately, however, the agent works for the player. If Furcal wanted to be a Brave, he'd be a Brave. Atlanta wanted him and had the money to give him a reasonable offer. No, Rafael Furcal just did not want to be a Brave. And that raises troublesome questions about the state of the franchise and the way in which the rest of baseball regards it.

Where do the Braves go from here? Damned if I know. They're still looking for that second pitcher, and Wren keeps saying he wants a power bat in the outfield. Derrick Lowe and Ben Sheets are possibilities for that first criteria, but no realistic names have been raised to fill the second. (The Braves aren't signing Pat Burrell.)

It wouldn't be a disaster if the Braves whiffed on all those names and went into spring training intent on a full rebuilding effort. They could draw final conclusions on the futures of young pitchers Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton and perhaps break in top prospects Jordan Schafer and Tommy Hanson. That might be a recipe for 100 losses, a tough pill to swallow for this organization, but sometimes you suffer today in the hope your future will be bright.

Of course, if the Braves end up doing that, the Javier Vazquez trade is going to look utterly pointless. Much like the entire off-season.

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