Raise your hand if you were wrong about Francoeur

When the Braves signed Jeff Francoeur to a minor league contract Feb. 22, two days before position players were due to report to spring training, I thought it was little more than a bone thrown to his many fans. As much as I liked him personally, I didn’t see how the veteran outfielder could help this team on the field.

If Jeff Francoeur were just a really nice guy, that'd be one thing. But he can still play, and that's why signing him was a good move and could be a good move again for the Braves. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

If Jeff Francoeur were just a really nice guy, that’d be one thing. But he can still play, and that’s why signing him was a good move and could be a good move again for the Braves. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

Man, was I wrong.

Francoeur, 32, has been every bit the outgoing, upbeat clubhouse presence everyone knew he’d be if he made the team, and that’s been particularly important this season when then Braves struggled even more than most ever imagined during the first quarter of the season.

But beyond all that, the guy can still play. Affable only gets you so far if you can’t play anymore in the big leagues. The pride of Parkview High can still get it done as a role player.

He’s raking against lefties and still has an above-average outfield arm, as he’s shown a few times when folks tested him.

Francoeur entered Sunday’s series finale against the Marlins batting .292 (31-for-106) with two homers, 13 RBIs and a .727 OPS in 39 games, after going 12-for-22 (.545) with four doubles and a homer in his past seven games including five starts.
Not bad for a guy who said at the beginning of spring training that he’d retire if he didn’t make the major league roster.

“I was talking about that just a little bit ago, because Catie was laughing about it,” Francoeur said, recalling a recent conversation with his wife about their offseason discussion on the retirement subject. “Even before (signing the minor league deal) I said, if I don’t get a big league deal I’m not playing this year. And now it’s crazy to think that I’d just be sitting at home.

“Everything works out for a reason. I couldn’t be happier than I came here and I’m getting this opportunity with these guys.”

He said his wife and former teammates including Brian McCann had the same advice for him this winter when he was trying unsuccessfully to land a major league contract and telling himself that he wouldn’t sign a minor league deal again if he didn’t. Not after spending almost the entire 2014 season toiling at Triple-A El Paso with the Padres organization.

You’ve got to go find out if you can still play, they all told him this winter.

“I talked to B-Mac and some of those guys, and they said the same thing – you had too good a year last year (with the Phillies) not to see where it goes and what you learned,” Francoeur said. “And I told you (reporters this spring), a lot of this is mental, it’s not putting too much on yourself. That’s the good thing about the role I’m in – it’s not every day you’re grinding. Not to say you don’t want to (play every day) or couldn’t do it, but the fact of the matter is, sometimes it’s nice to – look at Nick (Markakis), he gets a mental break the other night, comes back and gets two hits last night. You know as well as I do, it can do wonders for you.”

Francoeur had four hits in Friday’s 4-2 win against the Marlins and two hits including an RBI ground-rule double over the center-field fence in Saturday’s 7-2 win.

“Frenchy’s hot, so I’m just going to keep riding him – today anyway,” said Braves interim manager Brian Snitker, who started Francoeur for the fourth consecutive game Sunday, including one start in right field on a Nick Markakis rest day and the past three in left field.

Two of those starts came against lefties, but two were against righties including Sunday against the Marlins’ Tom Koehler.

“He may need a day (off) soon,” Snitker said. “But he’s swinging the bat good, (against) lefties, righties, it doesn’t matter. So I’m just going to try to see if we can throw some more runs up there.”

He entered Sunday batting .345 (19-for-55) against lefties with a double, two homers, .393 OBP and .473 slugging percentage, compared to .235/.235/.333 in 51 at-bats against righties.

Francoeur seems perfectly suited for the role he’s in – starting in left field against most left-handed pitchers and against some right-handers, pinch-hitting when he’s not playing, and always talking in the dugout – but not the annoying chatter you can get sometimes from a player not accustomed to spending much time on the bench and unable to adjust comfortably to the role.

Francoeur first thrived in the part-time and pinch-hitting role last season with the Phillies. Now he understands that playing in a platoon or bench role is a way he can extend his career at least a few more years and perhaps beyond that.

“Couple of million a year and enjoy it – especially here,” said Francoeur, whose deal with the Braves came with a $1 million salary if he made the major league roster, plus up to $1 million more in incentives.

The former Sports Illustrated cover boy – under the headline “The Natural” – when he came up with the 2005 rookie class known as the “Baby Braves,” Francoeur grew up watching the Braves win perennially in the ’90s and then played on a division-title team in 2005.

But as hard as it’s been to lose so much this season, especially starting out 2-20 at home, Francoeur has remained steadfast in his outspoken belief that the Braves’ rebuild is going to pay off sooner than later. He’s seen the young players they have on the way.

“You can see the pieces coming,” he said. “I always tell people, it’s not as far as you think it is. At this time last year with the Phillies we were (struggling), then all of a sudden you saw (improvement with young guys). It can happen quickly.”

Francoeur is only signed for a year, but those who watched him  at spring training and during the season so far have little doubt he’ll continue his career beyond this season.

“I look at him and he’s a guy that’s taken care of himself, he’s in great shape, and a good place in his career,” said Snitker, who’s known Francoeur for more than a decade and had him on his Double-A Mississippi team when Francoeur was a top prospect about to be called to the big leagues.

“And he’s a great guy to have around, my God, he’s just invaluable to have on a ballclub,” Snitker said. “I don’t look at this as being his swan song year, for me. I mean, he’s not an old man yet. He’s in the prime of his life.”

Francoeur isn’t thinking retirement these days, not after seeing how well he’s played in consecutive seasons as a role player with the Phillies and Braves. And he makes it clear that he’d like to continue his career at home in Atlanta, in the Braves’ new ballpark in Cobb County.

There are still plenty of Francoeur jerseys spotted at Turner Field and even when the Braves play on the road sometimes. Especially lately, he’s gotten the loudest cheers when his name is introduced at Turner Field, where Francoeur seems to thrive on the response and energy he gets from fans.

He entered Sunday with a team-best .412 home batting average (21-for-51) in 20 games.

“You can do this (role) and be productive,” he said, then smiled and added, “I’d love to do it in Atlanta; I think they know that.”

I didn’t understand why the Braves signed him in February, didn’t think it was more than a PR move. Now, I actually think they should sign Francoeur to an affordable extension, perhaps a one-year deal with an option. Because if he keeps hitting like he has, there’s no doubt that other teams will come calling this winter.

And when the Braves have Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies and other prospects on next year’s roster, there aren’t many guys I can think of who’d be better suited than Francoeur to help them learn the ropes while he keeps doing his thing, hitting lefties and helping to make the clubhouse a more enjoyable place for teammates — and, yes, reporters — to be.

Monday is Memorial Day. We can’t possibly pay back the debt of gratitude for the men and women who died in military service for our country. But let’s honor them by trying harder to show respect and appreciation every day for the ones who come home alive. They’re our bravest, and for decades they haven’t been treated properly in this country, only given lip service by politicians who say the right things but rarely follow through with them when it comes to helping veterans.

On that note, here’s a great tune from Jamey Johnson.

“IN COLOR” by Jamey Johnson

Jamey Johnson

Jamey Johnson

I said Grandpa what’s this picture here
It’s all black and white, and it ain’t real clear
Is that you there, he said yeah, I was eleven
And times were tough, back in thirty-five
That’s me and Uncle Joe just tryin’ to survive
A cotton farm, in the Great DepressionAnd if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids just trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in colorThis one here was taken overseas
In the middle of hell, in nineteen forty-three
In the winter time, you can almost see my breath
That was my tail gunner ole’ Johnny McGee
He was a high school teacher from New Orleans
And he had my back, right through the day we left

If it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids just trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

A picture’s worth a thousand words
But you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered
You should’ve seen it in color

And this one is my favorite one
This is me and grandma in the, summer sun
All dressed up, the day we said our vows
You can’t tell it here but it was hot that June
And that rose was red and her eyes were blue
And just look at that smile, I was so proud

That’s the story of my life
Right there in black and white

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids just trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

Yeah a picture’s worth a thousand words
But you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered
You should’ve seen it in color
(Should’ve seen it in color)


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