Typically, the Thursday Throwback is related to a random player and his time with the Braves. However, in light of Dexter Fowler‘s stunning decision to pass on the Baltimore Orioles and sign with the Chicago Cubs, I felt it was a perfect time to remember when a similar event kind of happened to the Braves. And bonus – it was far more ugly than just disagreeing about contract particulars.
I’ve referenced Frank Wren’s terrible 2008-09 offseason a few times here regarding the signings of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami along with the desperate settling for Garret Anderson. At my other site, I also went deep into the time Ken Griffey Jr. nearly joined the Braves (5/19/18 edit – site is deleted). Now, we focus on the biggest point of contention related to that offseason – the pursuit of Rafael Furcal.
You might recall that Furcal came to the majors as a not-19-year-old kid back in 2000. I say “not” because he was actually 21 years-old, but hey, who doesn’t lie about their age so that they can sign with a major league franchise two years before they are legally able to? Furcal’s 2000 was hyper-impressive even after you accept that he wasn’t 19 years-old during the season. He stole 40 bases, walked nearly as often as he struck out, posted a .394 OBP, and played a pretty stout shortstop.
Fookie would spend five more years in Atlanta and though he only eclipsed the 40-steal mark once more, he was often a great leadoff hitter who some complained was vulnerable to the Omar Epps-played Willie Mays Hayes syndrome (not an official name). Furcal liked to display his power and overswing despite having the bat control and speed to turn grounders the other way into hits. He stopped bunting doubles (yes, he did that) and hit leadoff homers instead. Still, when your leadoff hitter posts a triple slash of .285/.348/.429 over his final three years with the team, you’re kinda okay with the negatives.
A free agent in 2005, Furcal became the latest in a string of high-profile defections from a team no longer maintaining a bloated payroll. The Braves astutely replaced Furcal with Edgar Renteria in 2006 and didn’t miss a beat. Renty didn’t have the arm Furcal did, but he was a better all-around bat. After 2007, the Braves moved Yunel Escobar into the starting shortstop gig and continued their string of solid shortstop play.
Which was what made Atlanta’s interest in bringing back Furcal so curious. Furcal had done quite well with the Dodgers after leaving Atlanta but missed most of 2008 with back surgery. However, Atlanta wasn’t interested in Furcal playing short – they wanted him at second base. That was also kind of curious because Kelly Johnson had posted a triple slash of .282/.362/.451 with 28 HR the previous two years as the starting second baseman (and part-time leadoff hitter). Presumably, Atlanta would have shifted Johnson back to left field (where he played briefly in ’05), which would have saved us from the Griffey Jr and Anderson pursuits later that offseason. Though his agent later said it was an issue, Furcal commented on the prospect of shifting to second: “For me, it’s no problem.”
The Dodgers wanted Furcal back and as the calendar reached mid-December, the two clubs were the final two teams in the running for Furcal. Ned Colletti, the Dodgers GM, had been assured that they would get a final shot to re-sign Furcal, and both teams jockeyed for supremacy in bringing back the speedy middle infielder.
Los Angeles had initially promised just two seasons as they were concerned with Furcal’s back. The Braves saw the opening and went for it, negotiating an offer of $30M over three years with a 2012 option that would vest based on plate appearances. Frank Wren felt even more confident that the offer was good enough to bring back Furcal after the shortstop’s agent, Paul Kinzer, asked Wren to fax a signed term sheet. Wren was convinced that their efforts had been successful because, according to the Braves, agents don’t ask for a term sheet unless an agreement is pending. News leaked that the Braves were a physical away from announcing the deal and even Kinzer said that Furcal “was close” to accepting the offer. He told his client to sleep on it.
Kinzer then began to “backpedal” and said the Dodgers were promised one last chance to sign Furcal. The Dodgers “suddenly” stepped up, matching the Braves’ offer of $30M over three seasons with a vesting option. With Kinzer saying Furcal’s preference was to stay in LA the whole time, along with staying at shortstop, the Dodgers and Furcal agreed to the contract pending a physical.
In Atlanta, both John Schuerholz and Wren were incensed. Schuerholz boldly stated that the Braves would never again work with Wasserman Media Group, who Kinzer was employed by. That was possibly a CBA violation, but the message was clear. Atlanta felt betrayed and Wren clarified their position by saying that faxing a signed term sheet was the equivalent of a handshake agreement and that Kinzer and his agency had acted unethically in bowing out at the last moment. Wren also accused Kinzer of taking the term sheet to the Dodgers and effectively giving the Dodgers the ammo to know exactly what they needed to do to retain Furcal.
Schuerholz went further. “Having been in this business for 40-some years, I’ve never seen anybody treated like that….It was disgusting and unprofessional. We’re a proud organization, and we won’t allow ourselves to be treated that way.”
For their part, Kinzer said that there didn’t even exist a verbal agreement between the two sides. “We had, ‘Things look very good and Raffy’s going to sleep on it.'” Colletti chose not to weigh in too much but did say that faxing a signed term sheet was not the equivalent of an agreement between the two sides in his experience.
If it means anything, this wouldn’t be the last time Kinzer’s integrity would be called into question. He was dismissed from Wasserman in 2012 for “unresolved issues involving the players, including fees.” The biggest issue came in the form of Francisco Rodriguez, who settled for an unknown amount after seeking more than $5.5M in damages. Rodriguez had been traded to the Brewers in July of 2011 despite including Milwaukee on his list of teams that he couldn’t be traded to. For some reason, the list was never filed.
Was the Furcal mess unethical? Possibly. It was definitely shady to say the least. The Braves ultimately went back on their “boycott of Wasserman” and later signed Ryan Lavarnway, Cristhian Martinez, Bud Norris, and others. Kinzer started Rep 1 Baseball after leaving Wasserman and Kelly Kinzer, Paul’s son, represents Adonis Garcia.
In the end, Furcal went to the Dodgers and the Braves terrible offseason would continue. They wanted Jake Peavy and Furcal. They got Lowe, Kawakami, and Anderson. Their double play combo of Johnson and Escobar wouldn’t last long either. But in their favor was that Furcal was only healthy for the 2009 season and hurt after that so they dodged the bullet of paying an injured Furcal. So, there are some silver linings to this.