In 2008, Jeff Francoeur went from budding superstar to a guy who hit .239/.294/.359.   From that point forward, it became something of a running joke that it was only a matter of time before Frenchy became a Kansas City Royal.

When Francoeur actually did re-unite with Dayton Moore prior to the 2011 season (signing for a modest $2.5 million coming off a .249/.300./383 season), the deal was mocked, ridiculed and generally lambasted by pretty much anyone and everyone not getting a paycheck with a big crown in the lefthand corner.   This was, as many said, just another sign that the Royals don’t really get it.   For the previous three years, Francoeur had been a cumulative +0.1 WAR.  He had never been a good on-base guy and now had become a flailing free swinger who didn’t even hit for power.   Even his once Gold Glove level fielding seemed to be in decline.

Personally, I was sort of ambivalent about the signing.   After all, who exactly was going to play in right field?   Keep in mind, Frenchy came on board before Melky Cabrera and before the Greinke trade.   All things considered and with all the young prospects not expected to be in Kansas City until late in the year at the earliest, it seemed to be a low risk deal:  albeit one with little chance of success.   Even with the goofy mutual option tagged on it was still better than Jose Guillen for three years.

Oh, Dayton Moore, you glorious…..

Francoeur, long known to be a ‘good clubhouse guy’, was actually just that.  I know that stuff gets shoved in the faces of us non-baseball insiders with such a high level of condescension that it is quickly and often disparaged, but it does matter.   Frenchy brings a big personality:  fun loving, a little (maybe a lot) nuts, a leader.   I was not a big fan of the type of leadership that a Mike Sweeney brought to the clubhouse – Sweeney may be one of the very best people in the world, but I’m not sure that translated well into a sports leadership role.  I was certainly not a fan of the grim, prickly type of leadership that Jason Kendall brought – certainly, Kendall was outstanding professional in how he went about the business of baseball, but the grumpy old man in a foxhole routine wore thin at least to those of us outside the organization.  Without question, I was definitely not a fan of the ‘big’ personality that Jose Guillen brought to the clubhouse – there’s eclectic, then there’s crazy and then there’s just being a jerk.  Jose combined them all.

Again, I have no real insight into the clubhouse, but Jeff Francoeur seemed to balance personality, fun and leadership as well as almost anyone to put on a Royal uniform in recent history.  What was nice about all that was that, for once, the guy being pumped as a great clubhouse leader was also actually, you know, playing good baseball.

Frenchy’s .285/.329/.476 line, .346 wOBA and 2.9 fWAR were right on par with any of the best years of his career and by far the best season Jeff had since 2007.   He came out of the gate hot, slumped through May and June, but rallied to have a solid second half.   Jeff held his own against right handed pitching and thrashed lefties.

Frenchy’s  walk and strikeout rates were right in line with his career (surprisingly, when Jeff was truly awful from 08-10, he posted his lowest strikeout rates and highest walk rate).   However, after swinging at pitches 57% of the time in 2009 and 2010, Francoeur swung at 54% in 2011:  basically the same as earlier in his career.    That is still a good nine percent about league average, but better than he had been doing.    After being double digit percentage points above the league average in swinging at pitches both inside and outside of the strikezone, that Francoeur reduced that to 9% above league average in both categories is a noticeable change.

That change and likely simply being in ‘the best shape of his life’ turned Francouer’s always near league average contact rate (despite swinging at, well, everything) into more good contact.    His HR/FB percentage jumped to 10.3% after languishing from three years down around seven.   Jeff’s line drive percentage was nearly 20%, driving his BABIP to .323.   That number is above league average, but not ‘crazy lucky’ above average.

There exists the real possibility that a modest change in approach at the plate in 2011 might carry forward through the life of Francoeur’s new two year/$13.75 million contract.   Jeff will never sport a good on-base percentage, but he might sustain the rediscovered slugging that deserted him in the latter portion of the last decade.

ZiPS projects a .273/.314/.437 2012 for Francoeur (OPS+102), which would be a bit disappointing, but not line-up destroying either.   In theory, should Mike Moustakas come along as is hoped, Frenchy could find himself comfortably batting between Billy Butler and Moose and hence, seeing more good pitches.   I don’t foresee Jeff having a better year than 2011, but sandwiched in the middle of a more potent offensive lineup, I am not sure it is much of a stretch to have him come closer to what he did last year than he does to the ZiPS projection.

We know this much:  Jeff Francoeur will play everyday (in 5.5 seasons, he has played in 998 games), he will be a positive influence for a young team, and he will take a cannon of an arm with him to the outfield.   We also know, that right now, Frenchy blocks no one.

I wrote about David Lough last week and we pretty much know what we have in Mitch Maier (not a whole lot).  At this point, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson are both unknowns at the major league level and Wil Myers is not ready.   Francoeur could revert to doing Angel Berroa impersonations at the plate and become a free swinging black hole in the middle of the 2012 lineup.   That would certainly keep the Royals from any dreams of contention this coming year, but it does not really harm the organizational process as a whole.

Could Dayton Moore have spent the money more wisely this off-season?  Maybe.   Maybe it gets the Royals an Edwin Jackson, but at the expense of an empty spot in the everyday lineup.   Is the 2013 portion of the contract going to be a problem?  Maybe.   The risk really is not Jeff Francoeur flopping badly in 2012, but that his money and presence in 2013 might hinder the Royals from contending.

For 2012, I don’t mind Jeff Francoeur playing rightfield everyday for the Kansas City Royals.  In fact, I actually look forward to it.

xxx