Royals go overboard in re-signing Jeff Francoeur

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Pay no attention to the mutual option behind the curtain.  From the day it was dreamed up, it had virtually no chance of being exercised.  What were the odds that both team and player thought said player would be worth exactly $4 million in 2012?

On Thursday, the Royals and Jeff Francoeur both decided the 27-year-old outfielder was worth well more than that.  They agreed to a two-year, $13.5 million extension that locked up the former Brave through 2013.

The dollar amount figures to cause a great deal of hand-wringing.  Francoeur is a polarizing player with his popularity and athleticism and occasional offensive outbursts never completely obscuring the fact that he’s a career .269/.312/.430 hitter.

This year, Francoeur has been considerably better.  Playing for his fourth team, he’s hit .277/.329/.463 with 15 homers and 66 RBI.  He’s also set a career high with 19 steals, nearly matching his total of 23 from his first 5 1/2 years in the bigs.  He’s still made more outs than all but seven American Leaguers, but he rates as an above average offensive corner outfielder for the first time since his rookie half-season of 2005.

One very important thing to remember here is that Francoeur is just 27.  He should have a few more prime years in front of him.  Since he’s 27 and not 30, it’s more likely that his 2011 performance represents real growth.

But this is also Jeff Francoeur we’re talking about.  He always talks a good game.  Every spring, he talks about how his plate discipline is going to improve.  And it usually does for a few weeks in March and the first week in April before he goes back to hacking away.  Francoeur has walked 34 times versus 94 strikeouts this season.  He’s on pace to break his previous career high of 42 walks.  However, he’s already used 462 at-bats in getting 34, so discipline remains a big issue.

Also, Francoeur has truly been above average only the quarter of the time he gets to face left-handers.  He’s batting .315/.379/.602 against southpaws this year, compared to .266/.314/.421 against righties.

Now, that .735 OPS against righties this year isn’t bad at all.  But a little bit of overall regression would be enough to turn him back into a liability against the majority of major league pitchers.  For his career, Francoeur has an .841 OPS against lefties and a .704 OPS against righties.

That’s where the deal falls apart for me.  Even this new and improved Francoeur wouldn’t be anything more than the sixth- or seventh-best regular on a contender, and there’s a realistic chance that the Royals would be better off with Lorenzo Cain in center and Melky Cabrera in right next year than with Cabrera in center and Francoeur in right.

On the plus side, the $13.5 million won’t kill the Royals.  They’ve lopped enough off their payroll over the last year that $6.75 million per year will be pretty easily absorbed, and while it may cut into the budget a bit, spending that kind of cash on such a well-liked player could actually make them a more attractive destination in free agency this winter.  They just need to target better players than Francoeur next time they open their wallets.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 11, Yankees 6: The Red Sox clinch the AL East and they do it as Mookie Betts, I presume, clinches the AL MVP Award. He has a strong case for it on the merits, but his three-run homer in the eighth in the division-clinching game, in a week in which he was hobbled by an injury, are the sprinkles the voters like to see on top of that MVP cake. (See Jones, Chipper, 1999). Jackie Bradley and Brock Holt each hit homers as well. Giancarlo Stanton hit a grand slam in a losing cause. The Yankees loss also drops them to a mere game and a half above the A’s for the top Wild Card slot because . . .

Athletics 21, Angels 3: . . . Oakland romped in a game that was . . . something less than competitive. Marcus Semien had three hits and drove in five while Stephen Piscotty homered and drove in four. Angels Catcher Francisco Arcia pitched the last two innings. He gave up three runs but he also hit a homer, which I’ll call a “net two” in my wholly invented plus/minus system for two-way players. That made him better than three of the other Angels pitchers yesterday, none of whom had the chance —  or the guts! — to bat. Look for the Calcaterra Plus/Minus System to be adopted widely in the coming years. It’ll come in handy literally tens of times. Maybe.

Blue Jays 9, Rays 8: The Rays led this one 9-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, but Jaime Schultz and Sergio Romo could not hold that lead, giving up three home runs in the final frame, including Justin Smoak‘s walkoff blast. Danny Jansen hit a three-run shot in the ninth and Lourdes Gurriel hit a two-run shot. As I noted the other day, Tampa Bay has been surging in the past month or so. Surging so much that they had even entered the fringes of the Wild Card discussion, pulling to within five and a half games as of yesterday morning. This gut-punch loss, however, drops them back to six and a half back with ten games to play.

Braves 8, Phillies 3Kevin Gausman allowed three runs in six and a third innings and Lucas Duda hit a pinch-hit double to drive in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning and give Atlanta the win. Coming into yesterday’s action, the Braves led the Phillies by five and a half. Daunting, but since the two teams had seven matchups against one another in the season’s final eleven days, Philly had a puncher’s chance. They needed to win most of these matchups and otherwise hold serve, but it could be done. Now, one day later, it’s that much harder. Indeed, If Atlanta takes two of three this weekend, it’s all over.

Mets 5, Nationals 4: The Mets blew an early three-run lead, built thanks to homers from Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce. Max Scherzer settled down after that, however, and ended up striking out 13 Mets in seven innings of work. The Nationals still trailed but came back from a two-run deficit in the eighth inning to force extras. That’s all the scoring they’d do, though, and their old friend Jose Lobaton hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the top of the 12th to give New York the win. Between him, Dusty Baker and a bunch of relievers they case off, the Nationals have a whole army of departed Force Ghosts watching them from the sidelines like Yoda and Obi-Wan watched Luke. Except, of course, they’re watching the Nationals face plant as opposed to triumph.

White Sox 5, Indians 4Matt Davidson hit a run-scoring single with two out in the 11th to give the White Sox the win. Sox reliever Hector Sanchez pitched three scoreless innings to end the game. It was the White Sox’ first win in Cleveland this year in nine tries.

Tigers 11, Royals 8: Christin Stewart hit two homers — career homers number one and number two — drew a bases-loaded walk and drove in six in all. It was the most RBI a Tigers player has had in a game in 11 years. Given that those 11 years covered Miguel Cabrera‘s prime, that’s quite a trick. It was only Stewart’s 11th career game. He’ll remember it for the rest of his life.

Reds 4, Marlins 2: Cody Reed pitched six shutout innings — picking up his first win as a starter — and Scooter Gennett homered and doubled as the Reds take the first game of a four-game series in Miami. Question: will this be the least-attended four-game series in baseball this year? It’s gotta be in the top five.