Let’s start with the thing I like about the Royals’ signing of Jeff Francoeur: It’s honest. And by “honest” I don’t mean “predictable,” though, of course, the signing is also comically predictable. People have been predicting that the Royals would sign Francoeur or trade for Francoeur or steal Francoeur in the middle of the night pretty much since the day Royals general manager Dayton Moore took over and made clear his goal of making Kansas City a baseball suburb of Atlanta. Also, Francoeur was one of the few established players utterly incapable of getting on base the Royals had not yet reeled in.
This was going to happen sooner or later.
But, no, I don’t mean predictable. I mean honest. Last week, I wrote a piece for the magazine about Scott Pioli and some of his friends and their view of team building. And one thing that both Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro and Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff went on and on about is how easy it is to TALK about the philosophy of building a team. It’s easy for a baseball GM, for instance, to talk about wanting to build a team that plays great defense. It’s harder to put a guy out there who really fields well but also hits .227. It’s easy for a football GM, for instance, to talk about wanting players who care about team above individual. It’s harder when you desperately need a big play receiver to stretch the field and a big play receiver with a huge ego and attitude problem is willing to sign.
I don’t think it’s malicious hypocrisy or anything like that when teams go against their avowed principles. Not exactly. I just think professional sports is a tough racket. There are 30 or 32 teams going at it, and most of those teams are run by pretty smart people, and there is only so much money and there is only so much talent and there are countless pressures attacking you from all sides.
Take Royals GM Dayton Moore. He made it clear from the day he began that he wanted to build something meaningful in Kansas City. Dayton is a religious man, a family man, a principled man, and he wanted — still wants, I assume — to build a team that embodies those principles. He wanted — still wants — “a team Kansas City can be proud of.” He came into town and swept out some of the players who seemed like knuckleheads and headcases. At first, he was actually taking quite a few hits for some of his high-falutin’ moralism — nobody in town particularly wants a religious and principled family to play baseball at Kauffman Stadium, they want a team that will win some bleepin’ ballgames. And if the Royals happen to have a few good people, hey, so much the better.
But Dayton viewed it this way: The Royals, as a small-market team in the heartland with a long-run of losing, need to be about something more than just winning. And the point is not whether you agree or I agree or anyone else agrees. Dayton Moore is the GM. He was the one hired. And this is what he believes. He was public in his goal to build a winning atmosphere around players who stood for many of the same principles he stands for, who were willing to work harder than most, who were good teammates, great leaders, and all that stuff.
And then … he tried to trade for Milton Bradley. Look: It is possible that Milton Bradley is misunderstood. But it’s hard to say that you are trying to build a team of good teammates when you try to trade for Milton Bradley. Moore signed Jose Guillen. Moore signed Kyle Farnsworth. Moore signed Juan Cruz. Moore traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. Well, you tell me … great teammates? Great leaders?
I don’t think Dayton Moore ever felt like he was betraying his principles. I think he felt like he was being pragmatic. Here’s why I say that: Behind the scenes, he has worked and slaved and pushed to build what is now pretty much unanimously viewed as the best minor league system in the game. The Royals are loaded with prospects who should start trickling into place in 2011 and should start pouring into place in 2012. And in building the future, the Royals (best I can tell) have stuck hard to Moore’s principles, drafted and recruited and signed players they consider both talented and of high baseball character and intelligence. If Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers pan out, then the Royals should not only have a good baseball team but it seems they will also have a good clubhouse with stand-up players who hold themselves and their teammates accountable, which is all you could ever hope for when building a team.
So I think Moore has been true to his core when it comes to building the future. It’s the present that is more of a challenge. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to improve their on-base percentage and he promptly brought in guys whose defining characteristic as players is that they can’t get on base. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to play better defense, and they put average-to-below-average defenders all over the diamond (the Royals for the third straight year finished dead last in the league in John Dewan’s total runs saved — their minus-88 in 2010 was their worst total yet and 32 runs worse than 13th-place Boston). Moore talked about how pitching was the important thing, the Royals had to load up on pitching, get more and more and more pitching, and yet after Zack Greinke the Royals best starter in 2010 was probably Bruce Chen, an ex-Brave prospect they picked off the scrap-heap just before the season began. And, of course, Moore talked about how he wanted players who were mature and dependable and accountable … and then he gave Jose Guillen the biggest per-year contract in Royals history.
I think Moore did these things because it’s a jungle out there. The Royals have limited resources. They (like every other team) have an owner who can be unrealistic. They have a rightfully frustrated fan base. They cannot be players for big-money free agents — not only because they lack the money but because, let’s face it, what viable free agent is coming to Kansas City the way things are now? Don’t get me wrong. I think Moore deserved all the slings and arrows for spending an outrageous fortune on Guillen and Farnsworth and Cruz and Alberto Callaspo Sidney Ponson and Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall and …
… but wait. Kendall is not quite the others. I have made it very clear through the years that I do not like Jason Kendall’s game at all. AT ALL. I wish I had even bigger type for “AT ALL.” I cannot think of an offensive player I have less use for than Jason Kendall. You know, last year he had 490 plate appearances without a triple OR a home run. That was the most plate appearances without a triple or homer in 30 years and had Kendall not gotten hurt he had a real shot at Frank Taveras’ record of 598 plate appearances. I don’t think Kendall is a particularly good defensive catcher or handler of pitchers either, or anyway his assets defensively are too subtle for me to pick up.
BUT … Kendall as a person does fit what Dayton Moore said he wanted. Kendall is unquestionably all ballplayer. He wants to play every day. He is the guy in the locker room who talks after wins or losses. He lives for the game and he desperately wants to win. He seems unafraid to take the blame himself or — and this is perhaps an even rarer skill — make sure his teammates take their share of the blame. I don’t think you can win with Jason Kendall because he is no longer a good enough ballplayer to be out there every day, but here I am not talking about my own opinion about baseball teams. I’m talking about Moore’s philosophy, and Kendall is the kind of person Moore wants for the Royals.
So is Jeff Francoeur. I don’t need to go over his playing ability again. I will … but I don’t need to. I have written this before: Francoeur is simply not good enough to play every day. He is a corner outfielder of debatable defensive skill — he has a good reputation and a strong arm but he was in the negatives on the Dewan Plus/Minus each of the last two years and he had a minus UZR two of the last three years. Anyway, even assuming he’s a very good defender, the job of a corner outfielder is to hit, and Francoeur has an 83 OPS+ the last three years. Over those three years, he has hit .256/.301/.389 which is abominable for even a defensive wizard at shortstop or a brilliant catcher. It’s unthinkable for a corner outfielder. And that’s over about 1,800 plate appearances — there’s no mistake here, nothing has been overlooked, no magic switch. This isn’t about adjustments or new batting stances or getting him with a different hitting coach. The guy can’t hit at the big league level. He tries hard. He has a great attitude. He can’t do it.
Matt over at Fangraphs pointed this out but it’s worth pointing out again. The three least valuable players by FanGraphs WAR from 2008-2010 are Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur. Dayton Moore signed the first to the richest everyday player contract in Royals history, traded for the second when the Mariners were at their wits’ end and just signed the third to a $2.5 million contract.* The man knows how to acquire ludicrously bad hitters.
*Interesting, I think, the three worst in Baseball Reference WAR are Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teahen and Jose Guillen — also three Royals, though it’s not quite the same because Moore inherited Teahen. Francoeur is actually sixth on the worst list, ahead of Ryan Spillborghs and Wes Helms.
But let me get back to the point. Francoeur, for all his flaws as a player, IS EXACTLY the sort of person Dayton Moore said he would try to acquire. He is, by all accounts, a great guy and an awesome teammate. He’s the sort of guy that you meet, you love, you hope. I remember seeing this last year, when Francoeur went to the Mets and he got off to a sizzling start, was hitting .457 after a few games, and my buddy Vac (a sensible sort under normal circumstances) was saying “He’s figured it out! He’s turned things around!” I told him that this was not likely at all, but he was adamant, he was one of many who have fallen under the Frenchy Spell. Francoeur, of course, got 12 hits in his next 97 plate appearances and was hitting .237 at the end of August when he was dumped on the Texas Rangers. He had a bit of a hot streak in 15 games with them too, once again leading many Frankie fans to hope that something had clicked. But there’s no clicking here. Francoeur doesn’t walk at all, he doesn’t hit with enough power to be dangerous, and he’s just not an everyday player no matter how desperately everyone (including me) wants him to be one.
But those things Moore cherishes — loyalty, work ethic, leadership skills — Francoeur has those in Costco size bulk. Someday, somebody is going to do Jeff Francoeur a favor and use him in a way that will magnify his talents. He hits lefty pitchers. He may or may not be great defensively, but he’s undeniably alert defensively and capable of helping a team in the late innings out there. He is terrific with the media and takes on the burden for other players. He’s a supportive teammate and an energetic presence. And it’s not impossible that as he gets older he could refine his skills. Used right, with limited at-bats, say 400 a year, he could be a valuable player. Maybe the Royals will be the team that figures this out.
Or maybe not. Already Francoeur has made his intentions clear (“I do want to play every day … I’m not the greatest guy to sit on the bench,” he told the Star’s Bob Dutton. “I’ve always got ants in my pants.”). Already the Royals are talking about how if he loses a little weight, if he improves his plate discipline, if he does better at recognizing pitches, if he improves his power …
Ah well. The Royals are just treading water anyway until the gaggle of big-time prospects are ready to play at the big league level. The Jeff Francoeur signing in some ways is kind of sad because it is another “hit on 20 and hope for an ace” kind of move for Kansas City. It’s something for everyone around baseball get a good chuckle about. You KNEW the Royals would sign Frenchy. Good ol’ Royals.
But in other ways, maybe, it isn’t so bad. The Royals aren’t going to win in 2011 anyway. They are just trying to get through the year, develop a few players at the big league levels, let their remarkable Class AA rotation (probably featuring five legit big league prospects) pitch, allow their three or four or five supremely gifted hitters to get a look at another year of minor league pitching. And if they’re just getting through the year anyway, it’s worth going in with the good baseball people that Dayton Moore talks about all the time. Jeff Francoeur, if nothing else, is good baseball people.
In other words: Somebody was going to get that $2.5 million. I’d rather Jeff Francoeur get it than Royals owner David Glass.