Scenes from Spring Training: I get the Jeff Francoeur love

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This isn’t going to change my view of his ballplaying skills or anything, but I’m gonna be honest and say it: Jeff Francoeur is a nice guy. So much so that it made me spend some time thinking this morning about my place in the baseball writing world.  But I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, a rundown of my morning:

I got to The Surprise Recreation Campus just before 8AM. And it is a campus. It’s the first complex where it was hard to find the actual ballpark, what with the apartments, hotels, water parks, schools, fitness centers and everything else in the area.  There’s a lot of land out here in the far northwest side of town, but the city fathers of Surprise decided that the recreation was gonna be right HERE.

Nice place, though. Very friendly staff. As is usually the case I got lost seventeen times and each time an extremely patient person steered me in the right direction. The only hiccup came when I asked someone if I could walk to where they were directing me. There was a look of horror on her face when I suggested walking. “Oh, my, no, you wouldn’t want to do that.”  My destination ended up being less than a quarter of a mile away. Clearly the walk would have meant my end.

As I walked past the players’ parking lot and toward the ballpark to drop off my stuff I heard footfalls behind me. I turned, and there in the flesh was my white whale, Jeff Francoeur. I stopped him with a “hey Jeff,” and I’ll be damned if he didn’t flash a million dollar smile and say hello.  I asked him if he had a minute and he said he needed to get inside but that I should catch him later.

I dropped my stuff off in the press box and then followed the K.C. Star’s excellent Sam Mellinger into the clubhouse. Sam has a great piece on Francoeur in today’s Star.  So great that I was a bit flummoxed when I read it this morning because it pretty much covered everything I find interesting about the guy so I was at a loss of what I would ask him when I met him.

I went into the clubhouse. Francoeur was sitting in front of pitcher Blake Wood’s locker for some reason, eating.  I figured I’d let him eat while I checked out the scene.  And the scene was relaxed, as all clubhouses have been pretty relaxed.  Maybe it’s just an early spring thing. We’re a couple of weeks from managers really cutting the rosters down so the stress is not yet high. I was in Florida last year a week or so later than I’m here now and things seemed more tense. Other stuff:

  • Lots of talk about Charlie Sheen. One player was telling another that he was going to answer postgame questions with some variation of “winning” for the rest of the year.  I suppose this will get old soon, but it was a big laugh line among his teammates;
  • Pitcher Jesse Chavez was the only player who has anything decorating his locker: a 2008 Topps Heritage card — the ones that look like old 1959 Topps cards — of Robinson Tejada.  I suppose there’s a story there, but Chavez wasn’t around to tell it.
  • Indeed, the clubhouse was a lot emptier than others I’ve seen. Some guys were already taking hacks in the cage as early as 8:30, with is somewhat unusual. One pitcher had his arm all iced up as if he had already done his throwing for the day. Things get going early in Ned Yost’s camp.
  • I scanned the lockers and, though I realize how young the Royals are and know who is on their team, it really is shocking to see so few veteran names. The Indians are the youngest team in the league and they at least have Grady Sizemore and Orlando Cabrera in there. With the Royals you have Joakim Soria, Jason Kendall and the kids. Everyone else with some service time under their belt is more or less a journeyman or a guy who has been up and down from the farm as opposed to anyone who has held a set full-time job on a major league roster before.

And there’s Francoeur. He has been a major league regular. He will be again this year.  He is veteran presence now.  I decided that I’d ask him about that.

I wish I had a juicy quote for you, but I don’t. You probably wish that I had some of my patented Francoeur-snark, but I don’t. We just chatted for a minute about it and he — most likely because I’m simply not that good at asking a question to a ballplayer in a way that leads to a good quote — just explained that, yeah, it’s kind of different being one of the older guys on a team.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to him, though. He seems to know the score. There’s a good chance he won’t be here next year and perhaps because of that he didn’t try to play up the whole be-a-mentor-to-the-young-studs thing. He hopes he can impart some advice to them, but he’s under no illusions that he’s Yoda or anything.

Between Mellinger’s piece and what he told me today, I get the sense that Francoeur is aware that he’s in a transitional period in his career.  He probably knows that if he’s halfway decent this year he’ll get a contract from someone next year. He probably knows that if not, he’ll join the journeyman brigade like so many guys with his skills have done in the past.

The whole conversation lasted, like, two minutes. He was polite and friendly, stopping what he was doing to talk to me rather than sort of talking over his shoulder at me as he fidgeted in his locker like so many guys do.  I don’t talk to many ballplayers, but he was easily the most approachable. If you have to go into a locker room and get quotes from ballplayers every day I can totally see why he would be a guy you’d want to talk to and why so many in the Atlanta and New York press seemed to fall in love with him.  He’s friendly but seems pretty b.s.-free.

All of which makes me pretty ambivalent about the whole talk-to-players thing. At least for a guy like me.  In those two minutes I could see that I would probably like Jeff Francoeur if I worked around him each day. And I can understand that, if you like someone — and if you depend on someone for quotes and stuff — that it may be harder to be critical.  And to be fair, it’s not the job (usually) of the guys who go into the locker room to be critical, it’s their job to report.

But it is my job to be critical. Not personally, of course, and I at least hope I’ve been fair to Francoeur as a person even if I’ve ripped him as a ballplayer. But I do have to be critical of ballplayers and, more often, ballclubs.  There are guys more experienced than I am who can walk that line, working with the players by day and writing sharp stuff by night, but I don’t think I could do it.  Something would give, either in terms of me pulling my punches or the players shutting me out because, on some level, that which we don’t think is personal, ballplayers take very personally.  Their identities are tied up far more in their playing skills than we typically assume.

Having met him, I’m not going to treat Jeff Francoeur the ballplayer any differently than I would have before. But I am feeling strangely contemplative this morning about the whole media-ballplayer dynamic. What do we as fans really want and expect from these guys?  What is someone saying if someone is “great in the clubhouse?”  I have this feeling that the answer to the former has very little to do with the stuff that goes into the latter.  I also have this feeling that the latter stuff doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot.

Report: White Sox acquire Mark Lowe and Jean Machi from Mariners

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Tacoma Rainiers’ broadcaster Mike Curto reports that the White Sox have acquired veteran right-handed relievers Mark Lowe and Jean Machi from the Mariners in exchange for cash considerations. Neither team has officially confirmed the deal yet.

Lowe, 34, signed a minor league deal with the Mariners in late March. He pitched to a 6.23 ERA in Triple-A Tacoma and tacked on a 4.6 BB/9 and 8.5 SO/9 through 39 innings. He last appeared in the majors with the Tigers, and finished his run in 2016 with a 7.11 ERA through 49 1/3 innings before getting released by the club prior to the 2017 season.

Machi, 35, struggled to find a place in the Mariners’ bullpen this season. A nerve issue in his thumb derailed his efforts at the start of 2017, and he was outrighted to Triple-A after pitching to a 1.17 ERA through 7 2/3 innings in Seattle. In Tacoma, the right-hander’s numbers weren’t too shabby: he split his efforts between the rotation and bullpen and worked a collective 3.44 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 and 7.1 SO/9 through 36 2/3 innings.

Lowe and Machi will help flesh out a White Sox bullpen that has been depleted by recent injuries and trades. They’re expected to report to Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate in Charlotte and could see time in the big leagues by the end of the season.

Yoenis Cespedes: “I’m going to play the last year of my career with Oakland”

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Yoenis Cespedes told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he wants to finish his career with the Athletics, according to an exclusive interview released on Friday. The Mets’ 31-year-old outfielder praised Oakland manager Bob Melvin, telling Slusser, “I don’t think there’s a better manager than Melvin” and adding that while he didn’t know if a return to Oakland would be possible, his love for the city had not faded.

Melvin, for his part, said he wasn’t surprised that the slugger wants another go-round with his first major league club, even if only as a final hurrah. Cespedes hit well over two and a half seasons with the A’s, compiling a cumulative .262/.318/.470 batting line from 2012 to 2014 and enjoying two postseason runs with the club before he was traded for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes in 2014.

There’s been relatively little for Cespedes to complain about since his departure from Oakland, of course: he turned in a career-best performance in 2015, slashing .291/.328/.542 with 35 home runs and 6.7 fWAR in back-to-back gigs with the Tigers and Mets, and netted a whopping three-year, $75 million contract prior to the 2016 season. Still, there’s something special about the A’s, as the slugger relayed to teammate Jerry Blevins:

I told Blevins, ‘I don’t know how many years I’m going to play, but I’m going to play the last year of my career with Oakland.’ I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but that’s my goal.

Whether or not Cespedes gets his wish, it’s unlikely he’ll pursue any kind of deal with the A’s for the time being. He’s still owed $23.75 million in 2017 and 2018 and isn’t scheduled to hit free agency until 2019.