JUPITER, Fla. -- The eventuality the St. Louis Cardinals had to consider all winter became their reality Thursday when the club and Rafael Furcal surrendered to surgery that will repair the shortstop's elbow but probably cost him the entire season.
Furcal will have Tommy John surgery sometime next week to replace the torn ligament in his throwing arm, an injury that happened in late August but persisted as a reason he could not throw at full strength and without pain this spring.
The Cardinals turn again to Pete Kozma as the immediate replacement ?while general manager John Mozeliak left open the possibility of looking outside the organization if necessary.
"I think going into this we always knew this was a plausible outcome," Mozeliak said. "Having said that, when you think about all of the things that could have been done this offseason there was never really an opportunity that was going to make the impact that changed how we were looking. ... There was a high level of confidence with what we had in place."
Furcal, 35, met with Dr. James Andrews on Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., and was presented with at least two options to attack the ache in his elbow.
Furcal explained that Andrews could remove the bone spur in the right elbow and Furcal could attempt a return within a few months. Or, Furcal could have the torn ligament replaced and miss six months ?or more?. He said surgery was presented as the solution if he wanted to play beyond this season, his last under contract with the Cards.
"It's tough for me to say that I have to lose the whole year," Furcal said Thursday. It's a tough situation for me. It's tough to decide to get surgery. ... It's something you have to do ?sooner or later. If you think you're not going to play baseball anymore, you can give it a try (without surgery). You're not going to play anymore and you'll be fine. In my mind, I feel like I still can play."
Kozma, a former first-round pick, is positioned to be the Cardinals' seventh ?opening-day shortstop in seven years.
The 24-year-old infielder started at shortstop and hit a solo home run in the Cardinals' 7-6 exhibition victory against the New York Yankees on Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium. Kozma's two homers this spring are as many as celebrated sluggers Matt Adams and Oscar Taveras, and he's mixed the power with a .429 average in exhibition play.
Kozma took over for Furcal on Aug. 31 last season and helped elevate the Cardinals to the playoffs with a .333 average and 14 RBIs in September. In January, the Cardinals signed veteran Ronny Cedeno to a non-guaranteed $1.15-million contract to provide a known quantity as depth at shortstop. Cedeno has struggled at times this spring while Kozma received increased playing time in Furcal's absence.
"There's no doubt given what Kozma did for us in the last six weeks of the season last year we do have a high level of confidence that he can continue to add that energy and be that type of player we saw last year," Mozeliak said.
He added that solid defense at shortstop is "critical" to the club's makeup.
Asked what if Kozma is closer to the .236 hitter he's been in more than 2,400 minor-league at-bats instead of the revelation he was in the majors, Mozeliak said with Kozma being a reliable fielder "we could live with that."
Furcal's ligament tore on a throw Aug. 30, and at the time he was diagnosed with a slight tear?. He expressed at the time an eagerness to avoid surgery, which would have cost the early part of this season. He was prescribed a treatment program that included rest and a platelet-rich plasma injection.
A throwing program for the offseason was assigned, though the Cards lost contact with Furcal for more than a few weeks in the winter. A trainer was dispatched by the team to meet with Furcal in person and returned with encouraging reports.
The Cardinals and their medical staff followed a treatment plan that helped infielders Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker return to the field without surgery in recent seasons.
In November, a magnetic-resonance imaging taken of Furcal's joint showed enough improvement that surgery was not recommended, club officials said. In addition to team physician Dr. George Paletta's examination, Andrews looked at the pictures last fall. Furcal said four MRIs were taken of the joint during the offseason. He said at no point after his check-up in November was surgery suggested before this week.
"It was never something that was presented to us," Mozeliak said. "Nobody felt at that time nor in October nor in November that they felt that was the smart approach. ?... There has been a lot written and a lot of second-guessing that he should have had surgery in August or October. Nobody gave us (or) told us that was the right choice. A conservative approach made sense. Unfortunately it didn't work."
During spring training, Furcal attempted to increase the intensity of his throws only to have a bone spur cause pain as he threw and hit. An anti-inflammatory shot eased the pain for a few days, but the ligament flared and a Grade 2 tear was diagnosed.
In December, Mozeliak said he was "bullish" on Furcal's recovery. He also was looking into the market for potential help at the shortstop position. The Cardinals made offers to free-agent middle infielders Marco Scutaro and Alex Gonzalez, and checked into potential trade acquisitions with a handful of clubs, such as Cleveland for Asdrubal Cabrera. The Cardinals were unable to use playing time at shortstop as a sell to free agents because of Furcal's situation. The club had invested two years, $14 million in Furcal and Mozeliak said they couldn't shift him into a secondary role if healthy.
While the Cardinals did not make a move until signing Cedeno, they did gather information all offseason to forecast the coming market for shortstops. Regardless of Furcal's contribution to 2013, the Cardinals are expected to ?shop for a shortstop at the end of this coming season -- at the latest.
They recognized their need could come sooner, near the trade deadline.
Furcal's absence gives the team reason to look until Kozma's performance doesn't.
"I don't see the free-agent market really putting that much out there for us any time in the near future," Mozeliak said. "That could change. The trade market might bear something. We're hoping. I don't have the answer today. As things unfold, the good news is Kozma has got a great opportunity. What he makes of it is up to him. From a club standpoint, we hope it works for him."
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