Braves Right Field: The Now and The Future

At the major league level…
… it may not be the kind of soul searching that Andruw Jones will be doing this off-season, but Jeff Francoeur will have to have his own little "come to Jesus" meeting with himself. To put the blame of the 2008 disaster all on Frenchy’s shoulders is a bit much, but he deserves to take a big chunk of the blame for 90 losses.

Frenchy represents an interesting dilemma for the Braves. In one corner is much of the Braves PR and team branding that puts Francoeur at the forefront, and in the other corner is a player who was the WORST everyday right fielder in baseball this year. His .653 OPS was the worst among everyday right fielders, and he was listed dead last among right fielders in VORP (value over replacement player) with a (negative) -17.3! In fact, using the VORP metric, Frenchy was the fourth-worst player in the major leagues – out of 1038 players listed, he was listed 1035, just above Andruw Jones, Corey Patterson, and Tony Pena.

Was this season an anomaly or did it finally peel back the shiny-happy coating and reveal the real batter?

If the Braves stick with Jeff Francoeur as their right fielder next season, they should do so with some trepidation and a quick trigger to replace him with the first thing that comes to Frank Wren’s mind (not named Jason Perry). Next year is the last option year for Francoeur, so he can be sent to the minors without having to pass through waivers. If the Braves are serious about winning next year then they should not flinch if Francoeur is struggling, like they did this year, when they demoted Francoeur.

But what can Frenchy do to figure it out? He tried tinkering with his swing all season, trying everything he could and everything anyone told him to break out of his many funks. (Perhaps he should watch tape of Brian McCann hitting.) Beyond just getting Francoeur back to his 06/07 production, there should be a desire to see him go way beyond that – to have that breakout year that everyone has wanted to see from him for the past two or three years. In 06 and 07 his production was in the bottom third of everyday right-fielders, so one could point to that decrease in production in right-field (from J.D. Drew and Gary Sheffield) as another big reason the Braves have failed to make the playoffs the last few years.

I didn’t mean to turn this into a Frenchy-sucks piece, because I do honestly like the guy, and one can never doubt his hustle or desire. But at some point hustle and desire and raw talent have got to translate into above average major league skills. The Braves can’t have a right fielder who is expected to hit in the middle of the order put up a .359 slugging percentage. Francoeur needs to get better or he needs to go.

The future Braves right fielder…
… He’s one of the top-five prospects in all of baseball, and Jason Heyward is also the Braves top prospect. He did everything the organization wanted him to do in his first full season of profession baseball at just the age of 19. The real question now becomes, just how fast are the Braves prepared to move him up the minor league ladder. If my complaining about Jeff Francoeur in the first half of this piece was a sign that the Braves should make a change in right field, then after next year they really don’t need to look any further than Heyward.

This season at Rome he performed exactly how a top prospect should perform – his hitting, slugging, and on-base percentages were all in the top-10 in the league. He struggled a bit after a late-season promotion to Myrtle Beach, hitting .182 (4-for-22), but he turned it around a bit in the Carolina League playoffs, before falling off again. I wouldn’t put too much stock in those numbers as it was only a couple weeks of games.

Will the Braves take the slow and steady, one level per year approach with Heyward, or will they give him a mid-year call-up to Mississippi if he’s repeating his 2008 performance? He’ll only be 20-years old next year, so the slow and steady approach seems like the right one, but how much could events in the major leagues (the afore mentioned jettisoning of Francoeur) increase the need to move Heyward up and see how he responds to the challenge. 

Heyward5160804_medium

More for future consideration…
2. Jon Owings – JMO is finally moving up and out of the lower rungs of the minor league system. He’s been slowed by injuries, but while healthy the last two years he has shown impressive power and an improving ability to recognize pitches. As one of the truly nice guys in baseball, it’s easy to root for Owings to succeed. He’ll face a test next year in Mississippi, but if successful, a major league job shouldn’t be too far behind.

3. Chris Shehan – The Braves were able to woo Shehan away from Georgia Southern after his junior season, where he hit .428 with 22 homeruns. He displayed decent power and good speed in Danville, and seemed to adjust well to wooden bats. He should start for Rome in right field next year, and I think a lot of people are excited to see what he can do. He could turn out to be one of the real steals of last year’s draft after being taken in the 30th-round.

4. Concepcion Rodriguez – He’s sort of the forgotten guy at Myrtle Beach, but he played stellar defense and showed a good all-around game at the plate. He’s one of those guys who was signed out of Panama and grew into his own in the Braves’ Dominican academy. With his refined game he could catapult up the depth chart if he finally taps into all his talent.

Awesome photo of Jason Heyward courtesy of Chip Jett.

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