Well, of course, I can’t help but jump in on the Royals signing Jeff Francoeur to a two-year, $13.5 million deal. I can’t help but jump in because Jeff Francoeur continues to be one of the most compelling players in baseball to me — a great guy, a flawed player, a clubhouse presence, a free-swinger, a guy who can’t help but attract people’s best hopes and deepest frustrations.
Ever since 2007 or so, even if you were only half paying attention, you could have predicted Jeff Francoeur’s future like so:
1. He would eventually be signed by the Dayton Moore’s Kansas City Royals.
2. He would probably have a decent year in his new surroundings … or at least a decent start.
3. The Royals, buoyed by that decent year/start, would then offer Francoeur too much money to stay.
All these have come to pass, though everyone involved has insisted that this was not a fait accompli. It has just worked out this way. The Royals just happened to have an outfield spot. He just happened to have a pretty good season. The Royals just happened to decide he was worth signing to a fairly sizable contract.
From 2007 to 2010, Jeff Francoeur was a negative-WAR player. That means — assuming you buy into this statistic — that over three big league seasons, he offered somewhat less value than some outfielders drinking away their sorrows in Class AAA. Even if you don’t buy into the statistic, you certainly can’t help but buy into the numbers: He hit .256 with a .301 on-base percentage and a .389 slugging percentage. For a corner outfielder, that’s beyond unacceptable. This is why he played for three different teams in those three years. The Royals, I suspect, didn’t have much competition when they signed Francoeur for $2.5 to $3 million this year.
But there was some reason to hope that Francoeur could have a decent season. For one thing, Francoeur has shown a knack for good starts with new teams. He was so good when he was called up to Atlanta in the first place that he made the cover of SI. He was so good when he went to the Mets that they brought him back. He was so good when he went to Texas, that they put him on their postseason roster. If precedent held, he would come to Kansas City and get off to a good start, and sure enough 30 games into the season he was hitting above .300 and, if memory serves, leading the American League in total bases.
He then went into death-defying slump, as he can do. From the middle of May until the end of June he didn’t hit at all. His average tumbled. His slugging percentage tumbled. Everything tumbled. But there was STILL some reason to hope Francoeur could finish with a decent season. Three reasons, actually:
1. The Royals were going to keep playing him no matter what.
2. Kansas City can be a very supportive market for likable players like Francoeur.
3. Kauffman Stadium is a good place to hit.
The playing every day part helps for obvious reasons. The supportive market part, well, that’s speculation and I’m not sure it helps a lot, but Francoeur has talked a lot about it. The third part is big: People tend not to think of Kauffman Stadium as a good hitters park because so few home runs are hit there. And that’s true: It’s not a good HOME RUN park. But it’s a good hitters park with its comfortable hitters background, it’s big outfield gaps and so on. You can certainly see hints of it in Francoeur’s 2011 numbers:
In any case, you look up now in mid-August, and Francoeur is having a nice year. He’s actually slugging higher that at any point since his rookie season. He’s 2.2 wins on the good side of WAR. His 35 doubles places him fifth in the league. He has played pretty solid defense, I think, and it’s fun to watch him throw. He has a great arm. On top of that, everyone continues to like him — or so it seems to an outsider. With all that happening, the question wasn’t if the Royals would sign him, and the question wasn’t when either. The question was: How much? Two years at $13.5 million is a bit higher than I expected. But, hey, the Royals have money to spend. I’d rather Francoeur have it than it just go back into the pockets of ownership.
So, it had to happen, and it did happen, and now the question is: How will it turn out? I don’t think there’s a simple answer here. The one indisputably sad part here is that this seems an admission by the Royals that, even with their golden farm system, they don’t have a single outfield prospect who is almost major league ready. Francoeur’s having a nice year, but Melky Cabrera is having an even better one, which tells you that he will be coming back. And left fielder Alex Gordon is actually having a sensational year, maybe the best year nobody is noticing in the American League.*
*How good a year is Gordon having? Well, there are people trying now to inject Michael Young into the MVP race. As I Tweeted the other day: That would set back sabermetrics 25 years. Anyway …
Baseball Reference WAR
Alex Gordon: 4.0
Michael Young: 2.5
Alex Gordon: 4.6
Michael Young: 3.6
That means there will probably be no outfield opening in Kansas City in 2012. The Royals got outfielder Lorenzo Cain in the Zack Greinke deal, and he has played well in Class AAA, but the Royals apparently are not buying in. Many people I talked with thought that Wil Myers was the best prospect in the Royals system — better even than Eric Hosmer — but he’s struggled this year with injuries and strikeouts and changing positions and apparently is now on a slower track. Other promising outfield prospects — including mega-hyped first round pick and local product Bubba Starling — are years away.
So, with no prospect pushing the Royals, they felt comfortable giving right field to Francoeur for the next two years. I understand it. I don’t think this is a terrible move by the Royals. It’s more like a “Why not?” move.
But I have to admit: I don’t think it will work out very well. Two reasons:
One, I suspect that Francoeur’s numbers will dip. I hope I’m wrong, but there’s just a lot of evidence there that Francoeur is not a guy you can play every day in the big leagues. Over his career, he’s hit lefties and not hit righties. Even this year, he’s basically built his season off hitting lefties. But with a pretty hefty two year contract, the Royals will play him every day, and I just think that over the long haul he will probably get back to being around replacement level. I have a feeling that in 2013 especially, that contract will feel uncomfortable. Like I say, I hope I’m wrong.
Two, this is precisely the sort of uninspiring move the Royals have made for 15 years. They stick a Scott Podsednik … Jason Kendall … Rick Ankiel … Jose Guillen … Mike Jacobs … Ross Gload … Mark Grudzielanek … Reggie Sanders … Doug Mientkiewicz … Terrence Long … Matt Stairs … Tony Graffanino … Michael Tucker … I can keep going … they stick one of these veteran types out there and they hope for the best. They hope for:
A. A comeback year.
B. Another good year.
C. Veteran leadership
E. A winning attitude
G. All of the above.
Francoeur may be different. He’s not old. He won’t mail it in now that he’s got his contract. He does seem to make the players around him happier. But, it just seems to me that the Royals are supposed to be this young, exciting, vibrant team on the move. And when you sign Jeff Francoeur to a two-year deal, you are just kind of standing still.