Braves option Francoeur to Double-A
Outfielder sent down to Mississippi to recover, refine swing
ATLANTA -- There was a time when it seemed unfathomable to believe Jeff Francoeur would ever be sent back to the Minors. But during the next couple of weeks, the struggling outfielder will return to his roots and look to relocate his lost swing.
Hoping a reduced-stress environment will prove helpful, the Braves optioned Francoeur to Double-A Mississippi and he was expected to be in Friday night's lineup against Chattanooga. He'll likely stay in the Minors for at least 10 days, and the Braves are hoping that he rejoins the Major League roster when play resumes after the All-Star break.
"In the last 23 [years] of making decisions, this was the toughest," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "It was tough on a lot of fronts. It was tough because you care about a player, you care about a team and all of the ramifications. But at the same time, it's one of those tough decisions that you've got to make because you do care."
After Thursday night's loss to the Phillies at Turner Field, Wren and manager Bobby Cox were among those who revealed this decision to Francoeur, who has been regarded as a potential cornerstone to the Braves' future. Since the days when he was constructing a legendary high school athletic career about 20 minutes north of Turner Field, the 24-year-old outfielder has been a legendary figure in the Atlanta community.
"Not too many coaches got a lot of sleep last night," Cox said. "He could be any one of our sons. We love him that much."
Francoeur, who had two singles in four at-bats for Mississippi on Friday night, didn't immediately respond to a text message and phone call on Friday morning. But after MLB.com first revealed on Wednesday night that the Braves were discussing this transaction, he made it known that he was both hurt and angry.
"The bottom line is he's upset," Francoeur's spokesperson Molly Fletcher said. "But he's going to embrace this and he's going to turn this into a positive."
Francoeur chose to go to Mississippi because of the fact he would have better facilities than are present for the Triple-A Richmond team at home. Also, this allows him to reunite with Mississippi manager Philip Wellman, who had a positive effect on the right fielder long before he became known as the manager who simulates throwing grenades with rosin bags.
"Certain guys click with certain guys," catcher Brian McCann said. "That's just the sports world. People might be telling you the same things. But things might come across different than they do with somebody else."
McCann and Francoeur have been best friends for 12 years and obviously the discussion they shared late Thursday night was tough on both, especially the All-Star catcher, who admits he wouldn't have known how to react if he was handed this same fate.
"Jeff is one of the best athletes that you're going to see," McCann said. "He's going to be alright. He's going to fix it and he's going to be better than he was before."
Francoeur's tremendous generosity to civic groups and the media have made him one of the most beloved members in the Braves clubhouse. In fact, as recently as this week, Chipper Jones once again referred to the young outfielder as the organization's Golden Boy.
Still, while hitting .234 with a .287 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage this year, Francoeur has proven mortal -- and even recently started to hear some boos from his faithful fans. Things have gotten even worse over the past 18 games, while he has hit .121 with a .183 on-base percentage and just one extra-base hit (a double).
"This wasn't punitive in nature," Wren said. "To be honest with you, we don't really look at it as a demotion. We look at it as stepping back for a few days and decompressing and getting his game going. This gives him the ability to do that."
Wren contemplated making this move last week and then opted to wait a little longer after discussing things with the ever-patient Cox.
"We didn't know what to do," Cox said. "[Francoeur's] probably had 150 tips the last two weeks about how to hit a baseball. I relate it to taking a lesson at a golf course and then going out and trying to play [immediately]. It doesn't work. He just needs to get away with a couple of guys down there, play a few games and then be right back."
Oddly, this transaction comes just three days shy of the third anniversary of when Francoeur was promoted from Mississippi to make his memorable Major League debut. He homered against the Cubs on July 7, 2005, to mark the beginning of a strong rookie season. When he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of that year, the cover's headline read "The Natural."
All of that natural grace has been absent this year from both an offensive and defensive approach. After collecting a Major League-high 19 outfield assists last year, Francoeur won his first career Gold Glove.
This year, multiple scouts have commented on his decreased lack of range in right field. Some wondered whether this might be a product of the additional 15 pounds he gained coming into Spring Training. But Cox provided the reminder that the hard-nosed outfielder has battled a sore right ankle all season.
"He plays hurt all of the time," Cox said. "He's played all year with a bad ankle. He's already had two shots in it and he plays. He's one of those guys who comes to play every day."
Since the start of the 2006 season, Francoeur has started a Major League-high 408 games.
Before resting during the second game of a May 20 doubleheader against the Mets, he had played in a Major League-high 370 consecutive games, each of which he had started. The only other game he didn't start this year came on June 22, when he did have a pinch-hit appearance against the Mariners.
This dedication played in Francoeur's decision to tell The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "This has really put a damper on my relationship with the Atlanta Braves."
John Smoltz, who believes he was probably one start away from a similar fate when he began the 1991 season with a 2-11 record, believes Francoeur will find a way to benefit from this decision. "This is part of baseball and part of life," Smoltz said. "It's one of those things you need to come to grips with. He will be better for it. Whether it's the right decision or not is irrelevant."
After hitting .293 last year and enjoying a second consecutive season with at least 100 RBIs, Francoeur entered this season with great anticipation. But over the course of the past three months, he's fallen short of the standards he produced in his first two seasons. From an offensive standpoint, the Braves haven't seen the power Francoeur produced in 2006, when he hit .260 with 29 homers, a 293 on-base percentage and .449 slugging percentage. Nor have they seen the enhanced consistency he showed last year, while hitting .293 with 19 homers, a .338 on-base percentage and .444 slugging percentage.
"More than anything, we just want him to relax to the point where he can do what he's capable of doing," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton. Also proving frustrating for the Braves is the fact they haven't seen the same clutch-hitting ability that Francoeur showed during his first couple of seasons. He has hit .198 (20-for-101) with runners in scoring position and has just two hits in 20 at-bats with the bases loaded.
Francoeur's .662 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) also provides reason for concern. The only three National League outfielders with a worse mark are Houston's Michael Bourn, Colorado's Willy Taveras and Los Angeles' Juan Pierre -- all speed specialists with very little power.
The Braves remain hopeful that three weeks away will provide the best chance for Francoeur to regain some sense of normalcy.
"It's not unlike when you're dealing with your children, sometimes you do things for them that they don't necessarily like or want you to do," Wren said. "But in the big picture you know it's in their best interest, and that's kind of how I equate this."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.