Jeff Francoeur coming back to the Braves is wonderful and terrible

Associated Press
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I spent a good bit of the offseason sending joking complaints to the Braves Twitter account, asking them why they were taking so long to sign Jeff Francoeur. It was only really half a joke, though. Francoeur, a Georgia high school sports star, is a local favorite in Atlanta. He’s cheap now and the Braves are going nowhere, so getting a guy who can still play defense, hit an occasional dinger and who is considered to be good in the clubhouse seemed like a no brainer. In my mind the Braves signing him was inevitable, and last night they did just that.

I think it’s good that he’s back on the Braves. No, he’s not a good player — his OBP is almost perpetually sub-.300 — and was never anywhere near as good as his press even when he was an everyday player. But in the depths of a rebuild you sometimes give the fans a little fan service. There are a lot of people who will be happy to see him back in a Braves uniform. And, now that he’s no longer expected to be a star or live up to some expectations he’ll never be able to meet, the occasional good things he does — a solid throw from the outfield, a random home run or even a fluke relief pitching performance — can be enjoyed with no strings attached. There’s something to be said for that when you know the team is gonna suck anyway.

I do wonder, however, whether we will see a whitewashing of Francoeuer’s career and legacy in Atlanta, however. The signs are already there. I don’t expect the team to badmouth their new player, of course, but the quote from Braves general manager John Coppolella — “He brings leadership, experience, makeup, and most importantly, talent” — doesn’t bode well for the coming Francoeur narrative.

Talented? Francoeur always had raw talent. The problem was that it never was refined, in large part because of his poor makeup when he was young. I realize that goes against what everyone says about Francoeur, but being a nice guy — and I learned first hand that he absolutely is — is not the same thing as good makeup. Good makeup does not lead to the situation he put the Braves in in 2008. Most people have totally forgotten this about Francoeur, but as he and the Braves were struggling mightily, the decision was made to send him down to the minors to get the seasoning he should’ve gotten three years prior and to give him the instruction about plate discipline he always resisted in Atlanta. The demotion, intended to be for a good while, lasted three days. Mostly because Francoeur complained about it to the press, claiming he felt “betrayed” by the Braves and disrespected by Bobby Cox for the conversation about his demotion being brief. He would continue to communicate his displeasure about things through the press after being traded to the Mets.

Francoeur’s time in the wilderness after leaving the Mets changed him, it seems. He had a good year or two but mostly stayed the same limited player. He stopped making public pronouncements about where he belonged in the universe, however, and by all appearances seems to have to accepted where his is at this point in his career: veteran presence, organizational depth and a nice guy to have around. He seemed to fully accept being a minor leaguer with the Padres. He has been a total pro in both San Francisco and Philly, each of which were situations he likely knew weren’t permanent. There’s a lot to be said for carrying himself the way he has the past few years. There’s a certain nobility in that and I think it speaks well of Francoeur that he didn’t just take his ball and go home after his last guaranteed deal ran its course.

In light of the past and the present Jeff Francoeur, I’ll be curious to see the sort of treatment he gets now that he’s back in Atlanta. I suspect that there will be a lot of talk about his magical half season in 2005, complete with the famous “The Natural” Sports Illustrated cover. I suspect that there will be a lot of talk about him being a mentor. But I likewise suspect the fact that the majority of his first stint in Atlanta was comprised of underachievement, resistance to instruction by his coaches and his deft use of the press to get what he wanted will be glossed over. Glossed over in ways that it would never be with a different player. A player who isn’t a smiling local sports hero like Jeff Francoeur.

I suppose we’ll soon see.