12/19/08 9:07 PM EST
Dodgers officially announce Furcal deal
Shortstop returns to Los Angeles after passing club physical
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
His health? No guarantees there. You pay your money and take your chances.
But shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal, the team's top offseason priority, passed his physical exam Friday and the Dodgers officially announced his signing to a three-year, $30 million deal with a fourth-year option.
Team surgeon Neal El Attrache and back specialist Robert Watkins gave the green light. But for the Dodgers to kick in a guaranteed and decisive third year, it took Watkins assuring general manager Ned Colletti that Furcal's back condition is manageable if the player is dedicated to a specialized core conditioning program. Watkins performed July 3 surgery on Furcal to repair a bulging disk.
"This is not an exact science," said Colletti. "Dr. Watkins said if he keeps his core strong with exercises as he did, the likelihood of something happening to him is the same as something happening to anybody."
Nonetheless, Colletti revealed that the contract includes "a bonus clause for conditioning; we asked for it and they said right away it was great for him to have it, for his sake and ours." The clause could be worth as much as $1 million annually.
The contract also calls for salaries of $6.5 million, $8.5 million and $12 million. The team option for 2012 is for $12 million, but vests with 600 plate appearances in 2011. There is a $3 million deferred signing bonus.
"I'm so happy to be here," said Furcal. "We decided to sign here. The way they treat me here, I want to come back here. I know the team we have. I think we can make it this year."
The Dodgers had hoped to sign the 31-year-old Furcal to nothing more than two guaranteed years because of his uncertain health, but felt compelled to guarantee a third year in response to a late offer by the Atlanta Braves.
Furcal's decision to re-sign with the Dodgers -- as well as the manner in which negotiations were conducted -- led to a bitter exchange between his agents and Braves executives, who believed the shortstop reneged on a deal in place Monday night. By Wednesday night, there was a deal in place with the Dodgers.
Furcal tried to stay above the fray. He said he was in his native Dominican Republic during the negotiations, that he never agreed to a deal with the Braves and that he always planned to give the Dodgers a last chance to keep him.
"I don't know what happened. I [didn't] do anything wrong," Furcal said of the dispute between his agents, Paul Kinzer and Arn Tellem, and the Braves. "I was at my mother's home and my phone didn't work there. I see on the news that 'Rafael Furcal has an agreement,' and I don't know about it. I don't pay attention to that or I lose my concentration."
Although various reports had Furcal signing with the A's, then the Braves, Colletti said he never felt the Dodgers were out of the running.
"There's always speculation with the media, but it does not necessarily come true," Colletti said.
Preliminary discussions on extending Furcal's contract began last spring, but were scuttled when he was injured. But even with the injury, Colletti said that manager Joe Torre urged him to bring back Furcal, who fills the critical role of leadoff hitter as well as shortstop.
"You know we're a different team when he's in the lineup than when he's out of the lineup," said Colletti. "He's proven to be a difference-maker. Any time you sign, trade for or draft a player, you're taking a risk. Dr. Watkins did the surgery and he felt secure enough to take a shot. He was clear the percentage of success is based on different factors, but to him, it's worth the chance."
At $10 million annually, Furcal is taking a pay cut from the three-year, $39 million contract he signed with the Dodgers three years ago after spending his entire career with Atlanta. He scored 113 runs that first season, but badly turned an ankle in Spring Training of 2007 and played the entire season physically limited, his batting average dropping 30 points from '06 to .270.
Furcal and the club were hoping 2008 would be a rebound season and it looked that way throughout the first five weeks, when he hit .366. But he was injured making a difficult play in the hole on a ground by the Mets' David Wright in May, suffered setbacks both before and after surgery, and rushed to make it back for the postseason.
Furcal sparked the Dodgers to their NL Division Series win over the Cubs, but appeared physically limited while being shut down by the Phillies in the NL Championship Series.
"Right now I feel good," said Furcal. "I'm going to play a little winter ball in the Dominican Republic because I didn't have many at-bats this year. At least 50 or 60 at-bats. I'm working out every day in the morning and feeling much better now."
The re-signing of Furcal and third baseman Casey Blake were the top offseason priorities of Colletti and Torre, as they restore the left side of the infield for the Dodgers and stabilize the batting order, returning Furcal's leadoff presence with Blake a legitimate run-producing bat. Furcal also was pursued by Oakland, Kansas City and Toronto, but he apparently did not want to leave the National League.
The Dodgers now figure to turn their attention to replenishing the pitching staff, while a chance remains that Manny Ramirez will return on a short-term contract after Mark Teixeira is off the market.
Among the free-agent pitchers under consideration are Jon Garland, Randy Wolf, Trevor Hoffman and Randy Johnson.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.