PHOENIX – Even though Jeff Francoeur’s playing time had been diminished since the Braves got Matt Kemp and made him their every-day left fielder, my stance on trading Francoeur was, why do it unless you got back a legitimate prospect with a good chance of helping you out in the future?
To me, Francoeur was just too valuable for all of his intangibles – those who don’t value the human element in a player can stop reading now – to trade away for a fringe prospect(s) with little chance of ever being impact guys at the big league level. Because even though the Braves are obviously not going anywhere this season and their remaining games are meaningless in baseball’s big picture, those games do have meaning within the organization.
This is a time for some young players to learn valuable lessons, and for them and the veterans who’ll remain part of the team going forward to establish momentum, build chemistry, put down some good building blocks in the final month of the season before they head into an important 2017 in a new ballpark, a season that the organization fully expects to be a lot better than these past two have been.
If you’ve been around Francoeur, you know he’s one of the most upbeat, energetic and extroverted people you could ever meet. And if you’ve had the pleasure, as some of us have, of watching him up close at the beginning of his career and now at the latter part of it, you know how much he’s grown as a player and a leader. He’s not just a funny guy who busts everyone’s balls now (though he is certainly that, too). He’s just about exactly what you want in terms of a veteran who can help keep an entire clubhouse loose and make newcomers, young and old, feel welcome.
You want your guys like laid-back Freddie Freeman and ultra-intense Nick Markakis, for sure. But you also need, or at least can really use, a guy like Francoeur who has seen it all and isn’t just willing to share his thoughts and advice on all he’s seen with young players, but actually relishes the chance to do it. And, hey, from a selfish standpoint as a journalist, you love having a guy like Francouer on a team, because others see him interact with reporters and how easy he makes it look, how mutually beneficial that relationship can be, and plenty of them take their cues from that.
The way it was when the Braves had veteran leaders like Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux and Chipper in the latter part of his career, guys who didn’t avoid the media at all costs, who could speak for themselves and for the team when necessary, taking that load off of others.
So anyway, when the Braves traded Francoeur on Thursday in a three-team deal that brought back a non-descript minor-league catcher with a great name, 22-year-old Matt Foley – who presumably has never lived in a van down by the river – and versatile Dylan Moore, whom I’m told is actually a decent prospect, but is also 24 and in A-ball, well, my reaction was, why do that? Wouldn’t it be worth it just to keep Francoeur here to talk to the likes of Dansby Swanson over the next month, while also letting Francoeur know you want to keep him if the Braves are giving much though to bringing him back for a bench role in the first year at their new ballpark in 2017 (which I believe they are)?
But after a couple of conversations with folks who made it clear that the Braves were essentially doing Francoeur a favor by sending him to a contender where he could get more playing time down the stretch, since he’d only gotten 26 at-bats in the past 25 Braves games, and that they had talked to him about the possibility beforehand, and that it didn’t affect whether or not they and he would talk about re-signing Francoeur for 2017, well, I understood the deal.
But even before that, an hour or so before the deal was announced, one aspect of my thinking was changed a bit. And that was because of a conversation I had with Swanson about his first week in the big leagues. Quite frankly, from talking to him it was obvious to me, once again, that this kid doesn’t need a whole lot of advice at this point, although he actively seeks it and has gotten plenty already from Francoeur and other Braves veterans.
Instead of trying to explain what I mean by Atlanta native Swanson getting “it” and having such an unusual degree of maturity at age 22, I’m just going to close this by publishing my transcript of our brief conversation Wednesday in the clubhouse.
Me: I know you probably want to play every day like most guys do, but do you understand (manager Brian) Snitker resting you occasionally, like he’s doing today, trying to ease you into this instead of playing you every single day, especially given you’ve never played such a long season?
Dansby Swanson: “Obviously I want to play every day. That’s kind of a goal, that’s what you want to do as a professional – play every day, get yourself ready to play every day. (But) it’s one of those things where, I haven’t played this many games ever, and just kind of learning how to adjust to that, how to take care of yourself in order to do that, is nice. We talked about it my first day up here, about how things were going to play out, because you know it is a little more taxing on your body, especially at this level because of the speed of the game.
“I prepare every day like I’m playing. Just happy to be up here, going to learn as much as I can. Those days when you’re not in the starting lineup are very beneficial as well, because you can talk to guys, learn from guys, be around the guys. You see things in a little different light. So each day is an opportunity to learn; that’s kind of what I have learned so far.”
Does it help to have some talkative veterans on the bench who share experiences, advice, that kind of thing?
“Yeah, Frenchy (Francoeur), Beck (Gordon Beckham), Flow (Tyler Flowers)… I mean, all those guys are great. They want to talk to me, they let me know what they see, and I can run questions by them, they have no problems with that. So it’s nice.”
So they don’t make you feel like the big bonus baby or anything like that?
(Swanson smiles.) “No. I just try and treat everybody with respect, give everybody their space. And I think that they like that, I guess. It is nice to have those guys, I guess, in your corner, because after all this is a team and you want to have a close bond with everyone on the team and form something that can potentially be special. That’s kind of the building blocks.”
You had two hits and a sacrifice fly Tuesday, your third two-hit game in your first week. Safe to say you’re getting comfortable?
“I guess every day you grow a little more comfortable. Not that I was ever uncomfortable, but every day you get a better understanding of what needs to be done and how to get it done. So, like I said, every day you learn and you apply (what you’ve learned), and good things can happen.”
How’s it been being back here in Arizona, playing the team that traded you? Have people treated you well here?
“Somebody said, ‘Welcome home.’ I was like, buddy, I’m pretty sure I am home, where I’m at here (in Atlanta).”
That was all I needed, I said. And with that, Swanson smiled, pulled his cap over his thick hair, and headed out to do a TV interview in the dugout.
Francoeur can come back to help other kids next season. As far as Swanson goes, I think the Braves will be fine.
• I’ll close with this one from The Clash, who were, for a time, known as “the only band that mattered” for good reason.
“THE CARD CHEAT” by The Clash
There’s a solitary man crying, “Hold me.”
It’s only because he’s a-lonely
If the keeper of time runs slowly
He won’t be alive for long!
If he only had time to tell of all of the things he planned
With a card up his sleeve, what would he achieve?
It means nothing!
To the opium den and the barroom gin
In the Belmont chair playing violins
The gambler’s face cracks into a grin
As he lays down the king of spades
But the dealer just stares
There’s something wrong here, he thinks
The gambler is seized and forced to his knees
And shot dead
He only wanted more time
Away from the darkest door
But his luck it gave in
As the dawn light crept in
And he lay on the floor
From the Hundred Year War to the Crimea
With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear
To all of the men who have stood with no fear
In the service of the king
Before you met your fate be sure you
Did not forsake your lover
May not be around anymore