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Cards counting on a healthy, healed Furcal

Cards counting on a healthy, healed Furcal

JUPITER, Fla. -- Third-base coach Jose Oquendo was partway through his infield instruction on Friday morning when he signaled for shortstop Rafael Furcal to join him.

Furcal unplugged himself from the drills he had been participating in and took a spectator's view while assisting Oquendo as he fed ground balls to the others. It wasn't until several minutes later that Oquendo pointed Furcal back toward his teammates, and the veteran then wrapped up his infield work on the first day of the team's full-squad workouts.

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There was intention in the workload and caution in the application of it. Consider that the model for Furcal's Spring Training participation.

Furcal, 35, insists that he feels no lingering effects from an elbow injury that ended his season last August. In fact, he began throwing about two weeks after the Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason and has incurred no setbacks since. The extension of his right arm is no longer hindered by pain, and concern about any possible problems has subsided.

All of this, of course, is excellent news for the Cardinals, who are counting on Furcal to be a stabilizer at shortstop again this season. It does not, however, mean that they are going to press him into doing too much, too soon. Rather, there will be a deliberate attempt to ease him back.

"I am ready to go, but they want to slow me down," Furcal said. "There's nothing I can do. I feel pretty good. My arm feels pretty good. I'll just keep working with the trainers."

Furcal's readiness for a near-normal spring program is a credit to the work he did with a Miami-area training staff this offseason. Those trainers, who implemented a plan suggested by the Cardinals' staff, had Furcal cleared to throw only about two months after he came off the field in Washington gripping a compromised right elbow.

It was later determined that Furcal had partially torn his ulnar collateral ligament while making a routine throw to first. His season was instantly over, though doctors suggested that he could recover without surgery. Avoiding a procedure was also Furcal's best chance at being ready for the start of the 2013 season.

Those projections have so far proven to be right.

Furcal said that he put little pressure on his elbow during those throwing sessions in early November, nervous that something might go wrong. His effort level gradually increased during the following months.

"The first couple of weeks, you're a little afraid to throw, because you think the same thing is going to happen that happened in Washington, when I felt I was done," he said. "I didn't have any power in my arm, and I couldn't extend it. Now I can do everything. I'm available to do everything except throw hard."

The Cardinals have not provided specifics about Furcal's projected spring progression, but the plan likely won't deviate far from the one enacted a year ago, when Furcal was coming off another injury-riddled season. Last spring the club didn't play Furcal in its first few Grapefruit League games and was liberal in removing him after a few innings once he did get involved in game play.

The production wasn't great -- Furcal went just 10-for-52 -- but the process worked. Not only did Furcal play more games in 2012 than he did in either of the two previous seasons, he jumpstarted his year with a torrid pace.

Four games into the season, Furcal had already tallied a trio of three-hit games. He had a .333 batting average at the end of May and was a spark atop the lineup. It was a reminder of how loosely Spring Training results should be interpreted.

"Last year he took his time but certainly got ready by Opening Day," manager Mike Matheny said. "They've had him on a program all winter, and they've done a nice job of doing some pretty thorough evaluations right now. I'm not that concerned with it."

Concern would come if Furcal is, for whatever reason, stalled. His health is particularly crucial because of the limited depth the Cardinals have behind him.

Ronny Cedeno's ability to play short helps, but there's a reason Cedeno has been unable to stick as an everyday shortstop despite many opportunities to seize a starting job. His inconsistency -- both in the field and at the plate -- has limited his impact.

Pete Kozma, although a stud for the Cardinals last September and October, remains relatively unproven. Making career assumptions off a two-month sample would be premature. Before he shined for the Cardinals, he shuffled along mostly unnoticed in Triple-A.

For a club that doesn't have one of the league's best defensive infielders, Furcal stands as the critical cog.

"Even though Kozma did a great job… Furcal has that experience of being in that position before, many, many times," outfielder Carlos Beltran said. "I think having him healthy would mean a lot for us. Then we would have a veteran guy in the middle of the infield who would know how to handle the younger guys."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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