Courtesy of Minda Haas

The Jeff Francoeur Renaissance Continues

You may have heard the news that the Royals signed Jeff Francoeur to a two year extension today, a deal worth $13.5 million total and keeps the Royals right fielder in Kansas City through 2013.

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen the polarization over this deal, as some, buoyed by Francoeur’s demeanor, hustle and improved numbers in 2011, are ecstatic, while others, who point to his previous production pre-Royals, are less enthused.

Mostly, though, I don’t think anybody’s surprised.

Francoeur is enjoying a renewed productive season in Kansas City.  His .277/.329/.793 line is more than respectable.  He has more than 50 extra base hits. His walkrate is the highest it’s ever been (though still below average), and he’s – somehow – stolen 19 bases.

All this while being the good-natured, smiling, hard-working, aw shucks clubhouse guy we’ve always heard about.

Good for Francoeur.  He’s had a very good season after a handful of clunkers.  The majority of the fanbase likes him, he’s a good influence on a team that’s trying to learn how to be big leaguers, and Francoeur is a nice example to follow.  He’s faced failure, faces the criticism he’s gotten over the years.  He takes in rookies and shows them the ropes and he’s the first one in the pile after a big win.  I met him at FanFest in January, and at the time I felt a little guilty for genuinely liking the guy.

His arm has shut down baserunners at the plate, at third, advancing to second, and it’s likely deterred many others.  That thing is a legitimate weapon and accompanied by his bat, it’s made him a fan favorite.

When Francoeur signed with the Royals in December, Joe Posnanski called it a “hit on 20 and hope for an ace” kind of move.  The intent was to bring in a quality person who might find his stroke and become an impact player again.  So far, Francoeur’s 119 OPS+ shows that the Royals pulled the ace out of the deck.

But while he’s only 27 years old and maybe, just maybe, he’s regained the ability that once earned him a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a third place finish in 2005’s Rookie of the Year vote, the deck is stacked against him.

He’s had two seasons in which he’s eclipsed an OPS+ of 100 – that rookie season (126 OPS+) and 2007 (102 OPS+).  Even when he hit 29 homers in 2006 (the only year that he’s surpassed 20), his OPS was a mere .742.  Even when he was good, was he really that good?

But that was then, this is now.

I’m not anti-Francoeur.  I want him to succeed.  For one, it means the Royals are doing better and also, he’s easy to like.  He’s the kid from your high school who went on to break into baseball so you check his boxscore every morning and tell your co-workers you knew him back then.  He’s the guy who sticks around until two hours past game time signing autographs.  He genuinely enjoys having fans and gives back.  It’s no wonder he’s held in such high regard.

But all that goodwill and all the smiles don’t win ballgames on their own.  Is Francoeur a good influence on players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella? Absolutely.  Can Salvador Perez learn a little more about leadership from him?  You bet.  Is Alex Gordon‘s breakthrough a coincidence or has Francoeur, who’s faced those sky-high expectations before, been there to show him how to bounce back from failure and rise above criticism?  There’s no way of knowing, but it’s not far-fetched.

Posnanski pointed out today that Francoeur has shown a pattern of starting with a team and coming out strong, only to be tempted by over-aggressiveness and cursed by platoon splits and come crashing back down to barely replacement level.

I have no problem with Francoeur on this team, but I don’t think that at the end of this extension, Royals fans will be feeling as good about it as they are today.  Character, comradery and hustle go a long way in the clubhouse, and they may even help on the field to an extent (hard to tell since these are the “intangibles” and all).  They don’t do a lot when history suggests that a collapse is coming.

I’m just skeptical, I suppose.

At the same time, Franoeur’s extension doesn’t help Lorenzo Cain learn to be a big leaguer any faster.  At this point, the Royals may only reap the benefits of half of the Zack Greinke trade, as Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi look like long-term contributors, but Jeremy Jeffress (who’s gone from Kansas City to Omaha to Northwest Arkansas and struggled with command at every stop) has been disappointing, and Cain has had the bad luck of the Royals hitting the jackpot on two speculative signings in winter – who happen to play in the same position that he does.

Cain has a .306/.376/.506 line in Triple A and hit 15 homers and 25 doubles while adding very good range in center field for the Storm Chasers.  After a couple of injury-shortened seasons, Cain has spent the last year getting back to the top of the Brewers prospect lists, getting promoted to Milwaukee and then getting traded to the Royals.

You’d think the Royals would want to get a look for themselves before deciding that he’s never going to be anything more than a fourth outfielder, right?

With Melky Cabrera having the best overall offensive season on the team this year and still under team control for 2012 with one remaining year of arbitration, he’s 99.99% certain to be back next year unless something bizarre happens, and Alex Gordon isn’t going anywhere.  So Cain is left out.

He may have critics, and minor league numbers don’t translate exactly into major league production, but at 25, and relatively new to baseball (he didn’t play baseball until he was cut from his high school basketball team as a junior), Cain could still develop.  He has more pop than a lot of center fielders ever have, and he doesn’t look like a player who’ll suddenly put on 30 pounds like Andruw Jones.

In 43 games for the Brewers last year, Cain hit .306/.348/.415 over 158 plate appearances.  I’d want to take a look at that player at this level again, rather than see him stuck in Omaha, but maybe that’s just me.

Nobody knows until Cain gets up to Kansas City and plays.  Similar to Kila Ka’aihue being blocked by Mike Jacobs out of nowhere before the 2009 season, Cain is now blocked by Francoeur. We don’t know that he can’t produce until we see that he can’t produce.  The Royals seem to lack confidence in Cain’s ability to be an everyday player.

What many have said, and I agree with, is that this signing also signals that Wil Myers may be slowed on his path to the big leagues.  After signing his bonus in 2009, Myers worked in 96 plate appearances in the Appalachian and Pioneer League, putting up a 1.106 OPS as an 18-year-old.  He continued to rake in A ball, overcoming some early struggles to then earn a promotion to High A Wilmington and produce a .934 OPS at the age of 19.

This year, he debuted in Double A for the Naturals and shifted to the outfield and the transition hasn’t been the easiest for him.  The Royals, in signing Francoeur, may be easing their foot off the gas and letting Myers simmer in the Texas League and make the necessary adjustments.  Long-term, that is probably best for Myers, but he could end up turning it on early next year and continuing into Triple A. What then?  Myers may be ready and have Frenchie in his way.

I’m not going to be one to rail against the extension.  It’s not the worst move the Royals could make and it’s not a franchise-crippling move.  It’s just odd (though unsurprising).  Yes, Francoeur can play reasonable defense and his arm is an asset.  Dayton Moore has stated that right-handed power is turning into a commodity in baseball and Francoeur fits the bill.  He’s hit 29 homers before, so it’s possible to occur again (though I’m not sure how likely given still-questionable pitch selection).

Many Royals fans are elated that Francoeur will spend two more years here, and to an extent, I like him on this team.  Will that be the case this time next season or in two years?  That’s up to Francoeur.  Just as Moore signing him to a deal last winter and extending it now comes as no surprise, regression would also shock nobody.

For everyone’s sake, let’s just not worry about that. Yet.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dayton Moore Jeff Francoeur Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Lorenzo Cain Melky Cabrera MLB Royals Wil Myers

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