The Long, Strange Odyssey of Jeff Francoeur

About two weeks ago, when the Kansas City Royals finally bid adieu to struggling right fielder and former Atlanta Braves wunderkind Jeff Francoeur, I semi-sarcastically tweeted that it was only a matter of time before the Giants signed him to play left field. It seemed like such a Brian Sabean signing after all. Team struggling and in danger of falling into an insurmountable hole in the NL West? Well, why not pick up a guy who sports a .274 OBP over the past two years? That’ll solve all of the team’s problems.

Sure enough, in their quest to make me look like some half-rent Nostradamus apparently, the Giants signed Francoeur (more lovably dubbed “Frenchy”) to a minor league deal, and then brought him up to the big club in a matter of days. The plan with Francoeur is to have him play in a (presumably) strict platoon, starting in left field against left-handed starting pitchers. Francoeur has spent the vast majority of his major league career manning right field, but he’s typically been a solid fielder, so the transition shouldn’t be a bumpy one. The greater question is whether or not he’ll hit enough to even make it worth the team’s while. The immediate answer would be, well, to quote the current Iraqi president: “Wishful thinking is one thing, and reality another”.

Francoeur comes to the Giants after a somewhat tumultuous tenure with the Kansas City Royals. Signed by Royals GM Dayton Moore (who was the Braves’ director of player personnel when they originally drafted Francoeur) before the 2011 season, Francoeur actually had a pretty nice first year in KC, hitting .285/.329/.476, with 20 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases. It was a nice bounce-back year for a player who had fallen out of favor with three different organizations, and unfortunately it would lead the Royals to make some incredibly rash decisions.

Francoeur is famous for his superlative rookie season, when he burst upon the scene in Atlanta in 2005 and hit .400 in his first month as a Big Leaguer. He helped lead the Braves to the playoffs that year and finished with solid numbers, but trouble was afoot. You see, pitchers realized that Frenchy would basically swing at everything within a stone’s throw of home plate, and they soon wizened up and simply let the free-swinging outfielder get himself out.

And get himself out he did. Despite launching 29 homers in his sophomore campaign in 2006, Francoeur ended the year with an ugly .293 OBP, and most of the advanced metrics saw his season as a net negative. After a decent 2007 year, the bottom fell out in 2008, and his inability to draw a walk suddenly morphed into an inability to hit for power or do anything else of note. He quickly fell out of favor in Atlanta and was traded to the Mets. After a successful half-season in the Big Apple in 2009, he reverted back to Bad Frenchy the following year, and the Mets traded him to the Rangers for, of all people, Joaquin Arias.

Since Moore had a reputation of seeking out former Braves prospects and signing them, it was an offseason-long Internet punchline when he signed Francoeur in December of 2010. The signing look great initially when Francoeur put up good numbers that season, but then the bad decisions started and then began to snowball. When it was clear to most that Frenchy’s 2011 was probably a bit of a fluke, the Royals bucked common sense and re-signed him to a two-year deal anyway. This despite having one of the best hitting prospects in the minor leagues, one Wil Myers, not too far away from a starting outfield job.

Francoeur then had a horrible 2012, but instead of cutting bait and acknowledging the sunk cost, the Royals insisted on charging into 2013 with him entrenched as their every day right fielder once again. They then shipped Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis in an extremely controversial trade, basically declaring Frenchy or bust. While Myers eventually made his way into the Rays’ starting lineup and is now looking like the real deal, Francoeur continued to struggle and finally the Royals had enough and gave him the heave-ho. The final 2013 damage: .208/.249/.322 in 193 plate appearances. Yuck.

The Giants, being in desperate straits in their outfield after Angel Pagan went down, scooped Francoeur up quickly in hopes that he’ll rediscover that old Frenchy magic. Once again, the plan is to have him rotate in a platoon with Gregor Blanco, Andres Torres, and Kensuke Tanaka, with Francoeur and Torres getting the call against left-handed starters.

There is some hope this might work out. The Rangers employed Francoeur in much the same fashion down the stretch in their run to the World Series in 2010, and he hit very well (.340/.357/.491 in 56 plate appearances). He has also hit lefties demonstrably better in his career than he has righties, and just two years ago he completely savaged southpaws to the tune of .302/.363/.570. Hey, you never know.

I’m absolutely rooting for Frenchy. I’ve written some snarky things about him in the past, and he takes regular potshots from the saber-community, but he is from all reports a very likable fellow (who doesn’t like free pizza?) and he plays with energy, so if he hits at all, Giants fans should love him. Francoeur’s free-swinging ways proved to be his undoing in his trip to stardom, but his days as a productive Major Leaguer aren’t necessarily dead. The Giants got themselves a player who is steeped in baggage, but with the Royals picking up most of the tab on his contract, the risk is low and the reward potentially very high.