Baseball is a funny game. The day after Zack Greinke channels his 2005 form en route to giving up seven runs in five innings, hurtling the Royals ever deeper into the bottomless pit they fell into four weeks ago, the Royals have close to a perfect day. The day certainly had a perfect start, when Dayton Moore decided that Horacio Ramirez’s contract was less unpalatable than his performance, and chose to eat the rest of it. Fifth starter Luke Hochevar then returned with a start that reminded us why we were so excited about this team a month ago: say what you will about the rest of this team, but every pitcher in the starting rotation projects to have a long and successful career ahead of him.
The Royals’ metronomic out-making on offense – Scott Richmond faced the minimum through four innings – suddenly came to an end in the fifth when Mark Teahen homered to the opposite field – you know, that thing he used to do back when the Royals started 18-11. Alberto Callaspo followed with a double – also a blast from the past, if by “past” you mean April. Then Mitch Maier and David DeJesus followed with walks – you may remember the Royals had some success with that earlier this year – and finally the Spork himself, Willie Bloomquist, cleared the bases with a triple, his fourth of the season (only Coco Crisp has more in the
And when Hochevar got into a spot of trouble in the seventh inning, he was rescued by the remarkable Kyle Farnsworth, who completed his redemption story from bullpen pariah to set-up savior by retiring all four batters he faced in the seventh and eighth. Five appearances into his Royals career, the Professor already had three losses along with an 18.90 ERA. Since then, working entirely in garbage relief, Farnsworth had thrown 15.1 scoreless innings, allowing just nine hits and two walks while striking out 15. He actually got the win in the Miguel Olivo Walks! comeback game when the Royals scored four in the ninth, but Hillman was understandably so reluctant to trust Farnsworth in key situations that not one of his last 15 appearances came with a Leverage score of more than 0.30 – where 1.00 is average, and a “key” situation might easily rate 2 or higher.
Maybe Bob McClure fixed a flaw, or maybe Farnsworth pitches better when the pressure is off, but the only way to find out was to do what the Royals did today, and bring him into a game that was on the line. I’ve been waiting for this move since at least last Sunday, when I was sitting behind home plate at Kauffman Stadium as John Bale got into a mess in the ninth, Hillman called for the righty in the bullpen – and I realized with much discomfort that I was actually disappointed to see Juan Cruz, not Farnsworth, entering through the bullpen gate.
Farnsworth didn’t get the call then, but he got the call today, and pitched with the same sense of purpose that he has for the past six weeks, retiring four batters on just 11 pitches. With Cruz tanking, with Jamey Wright hit or miss, with Robinson Tejeda on the DL, we’ve reached the point where Farnsworth isn’t just the go-to guy in set-up situations…he’s clearly the go-to guy in set-up situations.
Like I said: baseball is a funny game.
But that’s not really want to talk about right now. I have bigger fish to fry. As I write this, the Royals are 24-31, amazingly just 5.5 games out of first place, but also just 1.5 games out of last. The offense is next-to-last in the league, and the once-vaunted pitching staff had fallen to 8th in the league in runs allowed (although the rankings are so tight that the strong performance today bumped the Royals back up to 6th in that category). And as Sam Mellinger points out, neither the offense nor the pitching is the team’s real problem – it’s the defense.
Anyway, the point is that despite what Dayton Moore might say publicly, privately he must be looking to make some changes. Maybe he doesn’t want to take a bomb and blow up the clubhouse, but perhaps he’s looking to make a surgical strike and change the complexion of the team with a single move.
If he is, well, I have a move I’d like to suggest. I also would like to suggest that those of you who are reading this right now ought to take a seat, because you’re about to read something that might disturb you. Rest assured, this is not some cockamamie idea I came up with today. Well, it might be a cockamamie idea, but it’s an idea I’ve been considering since spring training.
I think the Royals should trade for Jeff Francoeur.
Yeah, that Jeff Francoeur. The one that’s become the bane of Atlanta Braves fans and the laughingstock of baseball.
Some players get called “underrated” so much that they become overrated in the process. And for some, the opposite occurs: they get labeled overrated, and that label sticks to them so tightly that the pendulum swings too far the other way.
I’m not arguing that Francoeur’s performance as a ballplayer the last two years has become underrated: he really has been as bad as everyone thinks. But here’s the thing: Francoeur’s performance has become so maligned that I feel the public has lost sight of the fact that underneath those numbers still lies an enormous bundle of talent.
Talent can be a curse if you can’t convert that talent into performance, but let’s not forget: Francoeur has already performed at the major league level. In 2005, he made his major league debut on July 7th, and within two months was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He hit .300/.336/.549 for the season, and finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in just 70 games. It helped that in just 67 games in the outfield, he threw out 13 baserunners.
Granted, Miss South
As recently as 14 months ago, Francoeur was a trendy breakout pick among some analysts. Instead, everything has gone to hell in a handbasket for Francoeur; he’s stopped hitting, the fans have turned on him, and the Braves are openly shopping him.
As Warren Buffett recently said, “be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” The collapse in Francoeur’s market value rivals that of any bank or automotive company. But while the stock market is nowhere near its peak value, those who invested near the market bottom on March 9th has done very well for themselves – and while Francoeur may never reach the heights once expected from him, I suspect that anyone who trades for him now will get a very good return on their dollar.
Since the start of last season, Francoeur is hitting .241/.289/.357. He’s a mess at the plate. He famously – though perhaps not entirely seriously – said a month ago that “If on-base percentage is so important, then why don’t they put it up on the scoreboard?” His defense has gone to pot as much as his offense – according to Ultimate Zone Rating, Francoeur has been about 6 runs below average on defense over the last year-plus, after being +
So yes, pretty much every number you look at suggests that Francoeur is a waste of a roster spot. Except for one, which is the most important number for any player.
25. As in, Jeff Francoeur is just 25 years old. It’s waaay too early to give up on him. If you don’t believe me, you might want to consider the history of a very similar player. I am frankly stunned that I have not seen this comparison made before, though it’s possible I just haven’t looked in the right places.
Once upon a time, the Braves had a right fielder who, like Francoeur, met with immediate acclaim, stepping right into the lineup in mid-season and hitting .281/.304/.459 in 98 games, garnering a few Rookie of the Year votes. Like Francoeur, he was young (22) and considered an all-around talent despite the lack of speed (just one stolen base as a rookie). And like Francoeur, he swung at everything. He walked just eight times all season.
This right fielder struggled terribly the next two seasons, largely because opposing pitchers learned to exploit his impatience at the plate. In his sophomore season, he walked just 17 times in 75 games; in his third year he regressed even more, drawing just 11 walks in 60 games. He hit .235/.277/.354 combined.
The wrinkle is this: after his rookie season, this right fielder was traded, a trade that looked brilliant for the Braves when he struggled over the next two years. The team that traded for him looked like a bunch of morons.
That team was the Kansas City Royals. That player was Jermaine Dye.
Everything that has been written about Jeff Francoeur over the last year could have been written about Dye. I know, because I was the one writing about Dye 12 years ago. The comment I wrote about Dye in the 1999 Baseball Prospectus ended with the line, “His window of opportunity is just about closed.” Yeah, I missed a little with that one. Dye hit .294/.354/.526 for the Royals that year. He also drew 58 walks. Ten years later, he’s still hitting.
Look, there’s obviously a good chance that Francoeur’s problems are terminal. As a professor of mine used to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact that Dye turned into a star doesn’t mean that Francoeur is destined to do the same. But he has a chance to turn into a star. Go ahead and write down a list of every player in baseball who has the chance to become a star in the not-too-distant future, and is available to acquire for next to nothing. I’m guessing it’s a short list.
I thought the Greinke-for-Francoeur rumors this winter were ridiculous, and I mean that literally – I thought they were fabricated or at least exaggerated, because Dayton Moore is not that dumb. Today, you could probably pry Francoeur from the Braves with Greinke – Luke Greinke.
In a Facebook exchange – I can’t believe I just wrote that – Craig Calcaterra, the brilliant writer and authoritative Braves fan, put the price tag on Francoeur thusly:
“If I were running the Braves I’d accept a nice thank you card from
That is not the voice of a 15-year-old fan on an anonymous message board – that is the voice of someone who speaks on behalf of all Braves fans: they are sick of Frenchy.
Every baseball team has some sort of niche that they alone occupy, some unique strength that they can exploit to build a better baseball team. The Yankees are able to offer their players the personal use of a Brinks truck to haul all of the cash they’re being paid to the bank every two weeks. The Braves are the boyhood team of almost every young player that grows up in the southeast, and they mine the talent in their backyard with uncanny ability. The Cardinals offer players the chance to play in front of The Greatest Fans In Baseball™. And so on.
The Royals offer something to. They offer a player the chance to get away from the crush of overwhelming expectations. The team’s biggest weakness – its lack of a fan base – can become its biggest strength. A player that has fallen on their face somewhere else, with the bright glare of public scrutiny directly on them, can come to Kansas City and play in front of a small but loyal group of fans, a small and mostly non-threatening local media, and for a team whose expectations have already been ground down to nothing by the weight of 15 years of non-stop losing. For a player whose talent remains untapped, whose potential has become a curse, the Royals are the perfect team to rehabilitate that talent in a low-pressure environment.
As much as Francoeur reminds me of Dye, if the Royals trade for him he could equally remind us of Jose Offerman. Offerman, remember, was considered one of the best prospects in baseball in 1990, when he hit
Which is where the Royals come in. Dye-for-Michael Tucker was Herk Robinson’s best trade – a direct challenge of two outfielders in which the Royals clearly came out on top. But the trade for Jose Offerman was Robinson’s most brilliant trade, because there was no downside. The trade worked beautifully – the Royals did what the Dodgers should have done years before and moved Offerman off of shortstop. He made a decent second baseman – although Bob Boone, God bless him, thought he had more value as a rangy first baseman – and in three years with the Royals Offerman hit .306/.385/.419. (And when he left as a free agent the Royals got two draft picks, one of whom was Mike MacDougal, who was later traded for Dan Cortes and Tyler Lumsden, who was then traded for Jordan Parraz. The shadow of Robinson’s trade can still be found in
But I didn’t explain why this trade was so brilliant. It was brilliant because the Dodgers were so desperate to get rid of Offerman that they were willing to take almost anything for him. All Robinson gave up was Billy Brewer, a former Rule 5 pick who as a lefty reliever was coming off a 5.56 ERA in 1995. Offerman turned out to be a perfect fit in
I suspect that the Braves are close to that point with Francoeur. And Francoeur is close to that point with the Braves. Keep in mind, as much as any player would feel the pressure that comes with being anointed as “The Natural” at age 21, Francoeur must feel it worse. He was born in
As perfect as everything must have been for him when he was playing well, it must be an absolute nightmare now for him to be struggling the way he is, in his hometown, for his favorite team, after being a first-round pick and potential franchise savior just a few short years ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his defensive numbers have collapsed along with his offensive ones. If it was just his offense that deteriorated, you could blame that on a poor approach at the plate. That his performance has declined in every phase suggests that the problem is psychological as much as it is physical.
Jeff Francoeur needs a new start, and
Maybe Francoeur learns the strike zone and turns into Dye. If he doesn’t, he still could carve out a career as an overrated but still useful RBI guy, a la Joe Carter. Carter is one of the most overrated baseball players of my lifetime, but he wasn’t a bad player. You could win a world championship with him. Legend has it that he even had a big role to play in one.
Bottom line is this: the rumor du jour is that the Boston Red Sox are interested in Francoeur. Let me repeat that: THE BOSTON RED SOX ARE INTERESTED IN FRANCOEUR. If that isn’t a big flashing neon sign that the public opinion of Francoeur has shifted to the point where he’s now an underpriced commodity, I don’t know what is.
In a dream world, I’d like to see if
For the Royals, this move has the advantage of freeing up payroll in the future, clearing up the clubhouse in the present and the future. And it does so without significantly hurting the team on the field in the short term.
Guillen’s defense is so bad that he’s become almost unplayable. Alex Gordon returns in a month, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best lineup when he returns is one that has Gordon at third base, Mark Teahen in right field, and Guillen platooning with Jacobs at DH. But Guillen’s personality threatens to blow up the clubhouse if he is relegated to a bench role. Better to move him now if the Royals can do so.
Even if the Royals can’t interest
If the Royals do get Francoeur, they have the additional option of letting him figure things out in Triple-A for the rest of the year. He has options remaining, and my front office sources tell me that a player can not refuse an option until he has five years of service time accrued. Frenchy came into the season with 3 years, 88 days of service time, so depending on how long he stays in Omaha, it’s possible that a demotion will keep him in Kansas City an additional year. As it is, Francoeur would be under contract for 2010 and 2011, and if you can find three players under contract to the Royals who are likely to be better outfielders over those two seasons, you have better vision than I do.