In 2005 Jeff Francoeur did more than make an impact for the Atlanta Braves. He also gave fans reason to be excited about the future. With stars like Chipper Jones, and John Smoltz starting to age, and Andruw Jones nearing the end of his contract, Braves fans were happy to see the Atlanta native make a big splash.
The hype surrounding Francoeur was well intact long before he became the ninth player in Braves history to homer in his Major League debut. Just three years earlier, Francoeur had become an Atlanta hero after leading Parkview (GA) High School to a state championship, and finishing a high school career that saw him hit .443 with 55 HR and 164 RBI. Maybe just as impressive was the fact that he was tabbed to be a great quarterback for the Clemson Tigers.
Perhaps the praise came too quick and too often for Frenchy. Or maybe he is still adjusting to life in the bigs. It might even be that I have forgotten how young he is, but as a Braves fan, I have become disappointed and at times disgusted with the aggressive free-swinger. Frustration sets in every time I see him strikeout or hit into one of his signature double plays. How many times have we seen Francoeur come to the plate with runners in scoring position and one out just to see him pop out in the infield or serve up a weak grounder to short (not to second because he refuses to hit the other way)?
Braves fans are quickly forgetting the excitement they felt about the “Baby Braves” in ‘05 and ‘06. Catcher Brian McCann is the only one of the group to live up to expectations. Defensively, Francoeur is better than advertised. He often shows off the arm that Clemson coach’s were drooling over. Offensively, he has been as inconsistent as Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia stories. At times he has displayed the ability to come up big in the clutch. However, he has more often been a free-swinging rally killer with no desire to lay off a chin high ball or hit an outside pitch to the right side.
After a solid ‘07 campaign in which he hit .293 and won a well deserved Gold Glove Award, it was looking like Francoeur was primed for a bust out season in ‘08. Even though his home runs were down (19) from ‘06 (29), he impressed the Braves staff with his bat by coming up huge with runners in scoring position and finishing with 105 RBI. Through the first 64 games of the ‘08 season Francoeur has disappointed both fans and coach’s with his .253 batting average. Even more disheartening is the fact that he has yet to learn how to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. He has nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks.
Francoeur has become thought of as an important cog for the Braves. Coming into this season, many in baseball described the Braves line-up as dangerous in big part because Francoeur was expected to be a big producer behind Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann. With the injury bug that has hit the Braves outfield and pitching staff, production from Francoeur is desperately needed. With each strikeout and each runner left in scoring position, Francoeur’s struggles become more and more hurtful to the Braves playoff chances.
It is easy to see the talent and potential that Francoeur brings to the table. That is why both Bobby Cox and general manager Frank Wren have made signing Francoeur to a long term contract a priority after this season. The question is, what kind of a player will they be signing. Will he become a big bat in the middle of the line-up when Chipper is gone, or will we still be waiting for that bust out season. The future of the Braves may be riding on that question. If the Braves are going to keep Teixeira after this season it’s going to cost more than they are used to paying for a position player. This would mean that by the time they bring in a quality starting pitcher, there may not be enough money left over in their ridiculously low budget to keep Francour in Atlanta. By refusing to follow McCann’s lead in signing a contract extension, he has set himself up for a big payday via arbitration. This could hamper Wren’s ability to sign Teixeira. If that is indeed the case, then maybe they should look at trading Francoeur for a starting pitcher.
In my mind, both Teixeira and good starting pitching are more important than anything Francoeur would bring over the next few years. Especially with the possible retirement of Smoltz. Pitching is what took the Braves from worst to first in ‘91. It is also what won the World Series in ‘95. Pitching is what won 14 consecutive division titles, and pitching is what is needed if Cox is going to get another ring before he retires. If the Braves teams of the ’90’s had a line-up consisting of Yunel Escobar, Jones, Teixeira, and McCann they would have won more than one title. If this team had the great pitching of those teams, you could take Francoeur out of the line-up and still have more than enough offense to win a championship.
However, if Frenchy were to play to the potential he has shown at times, he could become the future of this franchise. He could also be a guy that you build a team around. If Teixeira gets greedy and leaves town, the Braves will be desperately in need of that type of player. Chipper may only have a few more seasons left in him and as good as McCann is, you just can’t build a team around a catcher. Either way, a decision needs to be made about the future of Jeff Francoeur.
As a Braves fan for over 20 years I’m not sure if I can stand another bases loaded double play or another three pitch strikeout. The occasional runner thrown out from right field just doesn’t make up for all the runners left on base. I must say that I hope he proves me to be a little premature with my discontent. Please Jeff, show me that the props I gave you last year are well deserved. Are you the Gold Glover with the 100 RBI and timely two out hits, or are you that guy that always seems to swing at ball four in the dirt and has nothing to offer but a strong arm and utter frustration? After 64 games and trailing the Phillies by 6.5 games I ask; will the real Frenchy please stand up?