I know a lot of you loved this guy, so this thread is a place for you all to say goodbye…
Jeff Francoeur always seemed destined to be a Kansas City Royal. Even when he was a Georgia-born-and-raised Atlanta prospect, he was always destined to be a Royal. Sort of. It seems as if very early on Dayton Moore’s tenure as General Manager of the Royals, Joe Posnanski was predicting that Moore, who played a big part in Francoeur’s drafting and development when Moore worked for Atlanta, would find a way to acquire The Natural.
Francoeur’s destiny went deeper than geography, though. Jeff Francoeur, whether in one of good or bad seasons, has never been a player who liked to take a walk. While Georgia was his birthplace, Kansas City may have been his spiritual home all along. After all, since 2000, the Royals have had the worst walk rate in baseball. Also: since 1990, the Royals have had the worst walk rate in baseball. The franchise with the worst walk rate since 1980? Just guess. What if we go back to 1970? Sigh.
Francoeur’s Kansas City career started on a high note of his 2011 comeback season, but this weekend, in a move many thought should happen but were not confident that the Royals would have the guts to make, the outfielder was designated for assignment.
Over the last few seasons, even before he came to Kansas City, I have written my fair share (and probably more than that) about Francoeur. By this spring, I could not even successfully joke about him. While I doubt we have seen the last of Jeff Francoeur in the major leagues, his time as a everyday player is probably at an end. I had planned taking a (permanent?) hiatus from writing about Francoeur, but this weekend’s events seem to mark a turning point. Given all that has been written about Francoeur and his ups and downs, a few reflections what we might take away from end of The Frenchise Era in Kansas City seem to be in order.
When Jeff Francoeur fulfilled The Prophecy in December of 2010 by signing with the Dayton Moore-led Royals for $2.5 million (plus the classic Dayton Moore classic mutual option), the reaction was predictable. Many national writers simply thought it was hilarious. Analytically-minded Royals fans, however, were understandably furious. Over the three previous seasons in Atlanta, New York, and Texas, Francoeur had been below replacement level. Why would the Royals waste any time on him, even if he was just 27?
Although the reaction was understandable, and in many ways justifiable, it was something of an overreaction at the time. My own post probably was. Yes, Francoeur was bad, and his fielding was overrated given how much range he had lost since his major league debut. Yet he was not that old (27), $2.5 million was not that much, he had shown potential in the past, and, most importantly, the Royals did not have any immediate options that looked to be as good or better. Sure, maybe the likes Mitch Maier or Gregor Blanco were a bit cheaper, but they were not clearly better, and neither had the upside that Francoeur had flashed earlier in his career. This was not a Jose Guillen deal in which the Royals would need to be lucky if he was going to be worth even one year of his three-year, $36 million contract. The team had no long-term commitment to Francoeur. If it worked out, great, they would have a slightly better team. If not, they could say part ways without having wasted significant opportunity cost.
This is not to say bloggers should have passed up the chance to have a good time. This is simply to acknowledge that the criticism of a small, one-year deal was at more exacting than it deserved at the time.
By the end of the 2011 season, the criticisms seemed wildly misplaced. Francoeur had the best season of his career at the plate with a 117 wRC+ (.285/329/.476) excluding his 2007 debut that was less than half of a season. While his walk and strikeout rates were actually a bit worse than previous seasons, his power seemed better than ever as he hit 47 doubles, 20 home runs, and even threw in 22 steals. Of course, as the season wore on teams were no longer surprised when Francoeur ran, and he ended up getting caught 10 times, but it balanced out overall. His range was a problem, but he threw enough runners out that it made up for it. Moore’s small off-season gamble on Francoeur (not to mention Melky Cabrera, who also revived his career) had paid off. Alongside Alex Gordon having perhaps the best season by a Royals position player since George Brett in 1985 and the debut of Eric Hosmer, things were looking up in Kansas City.
And then Dayton doubled down. The Royals signed Francoeur to a two-year, $13.5 million extension after the season. (The Royals also were said to have offered a similar extension to Cabrera, who turned it down, thus leading to Jonathan Sanchez trade. Ahem.) Although this was not a huge contract, it was a far cry from a one-year commitment under $3 million. Sure, it would have been a bargain for the average-to-above-average performance Francoeur had given in 2011. The problem was that it was far from obvious that he could pull it off again. Although Francoeur had shown that he was not necessarily stuck being the hitter struggling with a wOBA of around .300 from 2008-2010, it is not as if those years were erased from his permanent record.
One could have argued that the contract was appropriate for the below-average player Francoeur projected to be in 2012 and 2013 if he was playing full-time. The problem with that, though, was that the Royals were supposed to be beyond the point of playing below-average players every day. Taking chances on Francoeur and Cabrera on nearly no-risk deals prior to 2011 was smart and paid off. But to extend Francoeur in this fashion was doubling down and expecting Francoeur to have mostly overcome his past problems (and he clearly had not with respect to plate discipline). This same Double Down logic led to the extension of Bruce Chen during the same off-season. Chen also got a $2.5 million deal prior to 2011, and it worked out well, as he parlayed his fly ball skill into a sub-.4 ERA despite poor peripherals. Moore extended Chen for two years and $9 million after the season.
Fast forward to the 2012-2013 off-season, and multiple sources are reporting that the Royals very much want to move Francoeur and Chen. To the surprise of no one, the Royals were stuck with both players since they had both turned back into pumpkins during the 2012 season. Instead of looking for another low-risk stopgap, the next 2011 Jeff Francoeur, the Royals simply hoped that the past was the past, except for 2011, which they hoped was the present and future. Perhaps Moore was scared off by Wil Myers‘ problems in the minors during 2011, when Myers was dealing with injuries. Myers recovered enough to rake during the Arizona Fall League and put himself back among the top prospects in the game, but at that point, Moore had already extended Francoeur. As so often during Moore’s tenure in Kansas City, Moore could not bring himself to wait and see how things developed before spending too much on mediocrity (see also: Guthrie, Jeremy).
Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 (77 wRC+) in 2012, and even those who completely dismissed defensive metrics were hard-pressed to argue that his arm could make up for all of those triples to right field. There was reason to think Francoeur was not quite that bad, but even regression provided little hope that Francoeur would be useful as an everyday player in 2013. Yet the (mostly self-caused) events of the 2012-2013 off-season left the Royals with little choice. There is no need to twist the knife about Myers further at this point. Francoeur probably is not quite as bad as the .208/.248/.322 (50 wRC+) hitter he has been so far in 2013, but it is also clear that he is not even really useful as a platoon player or at this point in his career. While Johnny Giavotella is the player getting Francoeur’s roster spot in the short-term, Francoeur has really lost his job to David Lough, a player the Royals like so much that he spent three full seasons in AAA from 2010-2012 with very unimpressive numbers.
It is a sad time for those who love clubhouse leadership, big smiles, $100 bill-wrapped baseballs, and free pizza. Perhaps the saddest are those (like me) who never got a Frenchy Quarter t-shirt. I am sure Francoeur and his smile and the fun stories that accompany him will surface somewhere (maybe even Omaha!) again eventually, but this is probably it from him as an everyday contributor. It is fitting that the end came in Kansas City. Let’s look back on Francoeur’s biggest hit in Royals uniform (so far?) according to Win Probability Added.
At one time, I suppose people would have thought May 11, 2011 would go down in as a big day in Royals history as the day Eric “Votto” Hosmer hit his first career major league home run while his family watched from the stands in Yankee Stadium. (Hey, Hosmer has his wRC+ back over 100 this year. George Brett the miracle worker!) Or perhaps it would be remembered as as classic pitching duel between A.J. Burnett and Vin Mazzaro.
It did turn out to be a close and exciting game, as it wentto extra innings. With the game tied 2-2 in the top of the tenth with two outs and Hosmer on second, Frenchy doubled in Hosmer to give the Royals the 3-2 lead (.352 WPA). Although this did not win the game for the Royals, they could not have won without it — the Yankees tied it up in the bottom of the inning before Hosmer hit a game-winning sacrifice in the 11th.
I won’t remember anything specific, but I assume Royals outfielders celebrated in appropriate fashion.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.