Braves patiently await Francoeur to make majors
Monday, February 28, 2005
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jeff Francoeur has played out the scene in his head hundreds of times.
He emerges from the dugout at Turner Field for the first time in an Atlanta Braves uniform. His family and friends are in the stands. The announcer bellows out his name for all to hear.
Maybe he hits a home run. Or makes a great catch. Or scores the winning run.
"I've been imagining that since I was a kid," Francoeur said before heading to the cages to get in some hitting on a rainy Sunday at spring training.
Chances are, it won't happen this season. He's only 21 and probably needs another year in the minor leagues. But be patient, everyone. This hometown kid -- Francoeur was born and raised in the Atlanta area -- is projected as the next big thing for the team that has won 13 straight division titles.
"He's very impressive," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He can do a lot of things. He's good in the outfield. He runs good. He's going to be a good, solid major leaguer."
Francoeur was invited to the major league camp for the second year in a row, his place in the hierarchy of up-and-coming players apparent on the back of his jersey -- No. 7.
That number was worn last season by starting right-fielder J.D. Drew. Most of the other youngsters in camp get numbers more suited to a football field, such as 66 or 74.
Francoeur seems more at ease in the clubhouse, having gone through it all last spring. In that surest sign of clubhouse respect, he's already got a nickname, dubbed "Frenchy" by coach Pat Corrales.
"It's always fun to watch guys like Chipper (Jones) and (John) Smoltz," Francoeur said. "It definitely takes some of the pressure off. I've had a chance to see how they do things day in and day out."
The timetable for Francoeur to break into the Braves' lineup is 2006. The team signed a couple of bargain-rack outfielders this season, bringing in Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan to flank Gold Glover Andruw Jones. But they are both in their 30s, mere stopgap measures until Francoeur is ready for the big leagues.
Since this is spring training, where anything seems possible, Francoeur hasn't given up on the idea of getting an early start on his big league career. Maybe he'll surprise everyone by making the team a year ahead of schedule.
"If I came in with any other mind-set, I'd be cheating myself," he said. "I know I've got to play very well because I'm still young. But you never know what might happen."
The Braves have long been recognized for having one of the best farm systems in the game. They use their young players to bolster holes in the lineup (five homegrown players will be regulars this year) and as trade fodder (prospects helped land former 20-game winner Tim Hudson and All-Star closer Dan Kolb over the winter).
There are no plans to trade Francoeur, tapped as the organization's top prospect by Baseball America. The magazine called him "one of the purest five-tool players in the minor leagues" and a "fiery team leader," comparing his confidence to a young Chipper Jones.
Still, making the majors would be quite a leap for someone who started last season at Class A Myrtle Beach.
Francoeur batted .293 with 15 homers, 52 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 88 games for the Pelicans, but he also ran into the first setback of his three-year pro career. On the day before he was to report to Double-A Greenville, Francoeur squared around to bunt and got struck in the right eye by an up-and-in fastball.
It was a bonehead move by Francoeur, who decided to bunt on his own because he was trying to keep his Myrtle Beach average above .290.
"The Braves people were not real happy with me," he said sheepishly. "It definitely humbled me. That's the first time I've ever gone through anything like that."
Francoeur underwent surgery and was out five weeks. When he came back -- still at Myrtle Beach -- he had to face a hard-throwing Astros prospect the first time up. The second pitch was high and tight. Any fears about getting hit in the face again were exorcised then and there.
"I stepped out of the box and told myself, 'I'm OK. I'm all right,"' Francoeur remembered. "Then I got back in. That was the best thing that could happened for me."
Francoeur finally made it to Double-A, playing 18 games with Greenville. But he struggled with his timing, hitting just .197, and didn't get back on track until a stint in the Arizona Fall League.
The time out West took away from Francoeur's other passion: football. He was a star defensive back at Parkview High School in the suburban Atlanta, intercepting 15 passes as a junior and leading his team to a pair of state championships.
Francoeur signed to play football at Clemson, but scuttled those plans when the hometown Braves picked him in the first round of the 2002 June draft.
He still misses the gridiron, especially on those days when the Tigers are playing a big game in front of 80,000 fans. Somehow, an eight-hour bus ride after a minor league doubleheader doesn't stack up.
But there are no second thoughts, especially when that familiar scene plays out in Francoeur's head. He's at Turner Field. It's his first big league game. ...
"I love college football. There's nothing like a Saturday," he said. "At the same time, I don't look back. This is what I want to do."