It’s been 11 years since a hometown kid named Jeff Francoeur burst on to the scene for the Atlanta Braves and was quickly dubbed, “The Natural.” Now, a 32-year-old journeyman, Francoeur is looking to make an impact after re-signing with the team that drafted him 23rd overall in 2002.
After being called up midway through the 2005 season, “Frenchy” showed the promise that made him a highly touted prospect by hitting .300 on the nose with 14 HRs and 45 RBIs in 70 games, and finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He followed that up by driving in over 100 runs in each of the next two seasons while playing in all 162 games both years. He also ended 2007 by claiming a Gold Glove Award for his work in right field. In 2008 however, Francoeur’s power numbers dropped while his average plummeted, ultimately leading to then general manager Frank Wren trading him to the rival New York Mets midway through the 2009 season for fellow outfielder Ryan Church.
Since that time, Francoeur has bounced around with a number of teams including the Mets, Rangers, Royals, Giants, Padres, and Phillies. In 2015, he rebuilt his stock to a degree by hitting 13 HRs and driving in 45 runs in 119 games for a likewise rebuilding Philadelphia club.
Earlier in the week the Braves decided to bring Francoeur into its outfield mix by signing him to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. After once being hailed the new face of the franchise, Frenchy now enters camp as a guy just trying to make the club as an extra outfielder or bat off the bench.
However, that task will be a tough one for Francoeur, as the Braves already have a number of outfield possibilities in house with the likes of Nick Markakis, newly-acquired Ender Inciarte, the expiring contracts of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, and imported prospects like Hector Olivera and Dian Toscano. Utility players Emilio Bonifacio and Kelly Johnson could also compete for outfield at-bats.
With a lineup full of line drive and contact hitters, Francoeur’s power could be a key ingredient for the Braves off the bench this year should he find his stride during the spring.
Francoeur’s deal will be worth $1M if he makes the Braves’ roster, with an extra $1M available through incentives should he perform well. The deal also includes and opt-out where he can ask for his outright release if he’s not on the roster by March 31. Having spent time with some Triple-A affiliates during parts of the past couple of seasons, Atlanta might be an organization Frenchy would be willing to take an assignment with if he doesn’t break camp with the big club. If nothing else, he would provide the Braves with organizational depth as it continues its rebuild with focus aimed at competing in 2017 when it moves into its new Cobb County stadium.
While the return of “The Natural” to Atlanta might not end in the storybook fashion it began, a lot of fans in Braves Country are happy to have one their favorites with a tomahawk across is chest once again.