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Francoeur a Long Shot for Tribe

Francoeur a Long Shot for Tribe

| On 03, Mar 2014

The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is in a roster battle to earn one of the Tribe’s last spots on the Opening Day roster.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Jeff Francoeur was a fantastic baseball player and signing him would have been a big deal.

Back in 2005, Francoeur was called up from the Atlanta minor league system as one of the “Baby Braves” that was going to bring the tomahawk choppers back to baseball prominence.  Just about two months later, the man they call “Frenchy” was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a headline that called Francoeur “The Natural” because of his outstanding first campaign that placed him third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

The following season he slugged 29 homeruns and drove in 103 runs for the Bravos.  Then in 2007, he drove home 105 runs and won a Gold Glove Award with his rocket right arm.  A few years later in 2011, Francoeur ignited a young Kansas City outfield by accumulating a 3.2 WAR (wins above replacement)—the second highest total of his career.  He batted .285 with 87 RBI and was a 20-20 man with 20 homeruns and 22 stolen bases.  Not only that, Francoeur did a lot of his damage against the AL Central, torching the Indians in particular with a .323 batting average.

Since then, however, Francoeur has been a shell of his former self.

In 2012, Francoeur was statistically the worst player in the American League by posting a -2.3 total WAR that included a -2.1 dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) and -0.8 oWAR (offensive wins above replacement) to tie as both the fourth worst fielder and hitter in the Junior Circuit.  Last season, he “rebounded” to become only the 10th worst player in the AL with a -0.9 total WAR, but he impressively did so in just 59 games before the Royals released him in July.  He then went on to post a -0.5 total WAR in 22 games with the San Francisco Giants before they released him in August.

Currently, Francoeur is looking to win a job as the Indians fourth outfielder.  Barring any kind of Spring Training injuries, Frenchy will have more than an uphill battle to earn a spot on the roster, not to mention a spot in the lineup if he does make the team.

With Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn guaranteed starting spots in left and centerfield, Francoeur’s best bet is unquestionably to earn a spot as a platoon right fielder with fellow newcomer David Murphy.  To do this, Francoeur would need to show a lot of improvement while in Goodyear both offensively and defensively, while utility man Ryan Raburn would likely need to show a lot more value while playing the infield.  This theory would  put Raburn—who is also guaranteed a roster spot—in some sort of righty/lefty platoon at a corner infield spot (likely third base with Lonnie Chisenhall) and would leave the right handed portion of a Murphy/right field platoon open for Francoeur to take.  If this scenario played out, something else would have to give on the Tribe’s 25 man roster.

As long as the Indians carry 13 hitters on their roster (as is common), there really are only two spots that have any sort of question marks by them.  To go along with the aforementioned Brantley, Murphy, Raburn and Bourn, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chisenhall and Mike Aviles are all locks to be on the Opening Day roster.  This leaves two spots for Francoeur to take and one could very likely be taken up by a backup catcher if Santana is being counted on as an everyday designated hitter or if he isn’t a major defensive liability at third base this spring.  This scenario would leave one spot open and Frenchy would be battling Terry Francona-favorite Jason Giambi for it.

While Francoeur’s likely competition is from the 43-year old DH/pinch-hitter, he could also get some heat from others as well.  The 33-year old speedster Nyjer Morgan was signed to a minor league deal this winter and would give the Tribe a different wrinkle off of the bench that the slow-footed Francoeur and Giambi cannot.  Both Jose Ramirez and Matt Carson spent time with the Major League club last September.  Infielder David Adams was signed to a Major League deal, Bryan LaHair is a former All-Star and Elliot Johnson can play all over the field as well.

Having absolutely no guarantee at making a spot on the roster, Francoeur still remains possibly the most intriguing minor league signing of the offseason.  While many are comparing this signing to that of Raburn last season, the best-case scenario for Francoeur and the Indians is that he takes Goodyear by storm just like Marty Cordova did way back in 2001.

Cordova, like Francoeur, was an after-thought, down on his luck player who was just looking for a chance to rebound.  He caught fire in Spring Training, made the team out of camp when nobody expected him to, and ended up becoming Charlie Manuel’s everyday left fielder as the team coasted to the AL Central crown.  This is not saying that a Cordova-like turnaround for Francoeur is likely, but such a scenario has happened before.

After all, a productive Francoeur used to be a big deal.

Photo: Kim Klement/USA Today Sports