A lot has changed in the four years Rafael Furcal has spent with the Dodgers, starting with Furcal himself.
Strands of white hair have started to sprout on his head. He spent his mornings last month in the hallway outside of the clubhouse at the Dodgers’ spring training complex, throwing a medicine ball against a wall as part of an exercise program designed to prevent him from reinjuring his surgically repaired back.
“Four years . . .” Furcal said, laughing and shaking his head.
The Dodgers’ longest-tenured player, the 32-year-old shortstop and leadoff hitter has seen a group of cocksure rookies morph into a nucleus that he believes could lead the franchise to its first World Series in 22 years.
“You reporters said they were can’t-miss prospects and that’s the attitude that Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp had when they came here,” Furcal said.
Initially, he said he didn’t know what to make of the pack, which also included Russell Martin, James Loney, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton.
Furcal had been around to know that many can’t-miss prospects missed. Then he saw how they approached their jobs.
“What made them successful is that they’re workers,” Furcal said. “They don’t get tired of working. When you’re young, you have to have the desire to get better. You can’t take anything for granted, you can’t think that you’re already good.”
After consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series, Furcal said he thinks these Dodgers are ready to advance to a World Series.
“They know how to win,” Furcal said. “They’re young men with a lot of talent who already have three, four years of experience. I think we’re ready to go to the next level.”
Because their drive is still there.
Torre said he sees what Furcal sees, particularly with Ethier and Kemp.
Ethier hit 31 home runs and drove in 106 runs last season to win a Silver Slugger Award. Kemp also won that award by hitting 26 home runs, driving in 101 runs and stealing 34 bases, and won a Gold Glove Award in his first full season as the starting center fielder.
Each received a two-year contract over the winter, Ethier signing for $15.25 million and Kemp for $10.95 million.
“You used to be able to judge somebody’s ability based on how much money they made,” Torre said. “Since then, because of free agency, that doesn’t necessarily tell you how good a player is. It’s where the market is. So it’s really up to the player what his motivation is. Is it to make money? Or is it to be the best player you can be with your ability?”
Torre said he believes that the latter is the case for both players.
Ethier and Kemp have ascended to a point where they might be the Dodgers’ two most reliable commodities.
And, suddenly, it’s the older players who are the question marks — among them Furcal and his Manny Ramirez.
Of Furcal, General Manager Ned Colletti said, “He’s on top of the order and in the middle of the field. Obviously, he’s very important.”
Furcal, in the second year of a three-year, $30-million deal, makes no effort to conceal that he wasn’t the Furcal of old. His numbers tell the story.
Only a season removed from back surgery that sidelined him for 4 1/2 months, Furcal played 150 games but batted .269 and had an on-base percentage of .335.
Furcal, who stole 47 bases with Atlanta in 2005 and 37 with the Dodgers the next season, had only 12 steals.
Furcal said he knows Ramirez will hit .300 and drive in 100 runs. He said he knows Ethier and Kemp will hit.
Get on base and he’ll get a chance to do some damage, Furcal said.
“If I get on base, I think everything’s possible,” he said.
Like scoring 100 runs again? Or stealing 30-plus bases?
Furcal didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“Remember,” he said. “No one ever steals first. You have to get on base first.”
Expectations were raised when Furcal batted .331 and scored 23 runs in the last 31 regular-season games last year.
But there were questions this spring, when Furcal hit .222 in 63 at-bats.
“I see the same challenge that I saw earlier in the year last year,” Colletti said. “He doesn’t use his hands enough as a hitter. He’s trying to muscle everything. That’s obviously adjustable because he adjusted last year.”
Third base coach Larry Bowa said he started to see Furcal make changes with about two weeks remaining in spring training.
“He had a long swing earlier,” Bowa said. “He’s shortened up. I think that as long as he’s healthy, it won’t be a problem.”
As the Dodgers’ table-setter, Furcal said he feels a strong sense of responsibility. The kids will do their part. It’s up to him to do his.
“Everyone has to do their part,” he said. “This isn’t an individual game.”