The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Mets players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 10, right fielder Jeff Francoeur.
It certainly seems strange to think of now, but Jeff Francoeur was one of the starting right fielders for the 2006 United States entry in the World Baseball Classic. At the time, Francoeur was one of baseball's rising stars, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting despite only playing in 67 games for the Braves in 2005. He signed national endorsement deals, won a Gold Glove in 2007, and played in 162 games two different times. Then it all fell apart. By mid-2008, he was playing in Double-A Mississippi, and by 2009, the local boy was traded to the Mets straight up for Ryan Church.
The problem, as it has always been, was that Jeff Francoeur hates to walk. (His first Major League walk was 128 at-bats into his career.) Francoeur's inability to walk is not some new-school, old-school divide: Walking as rarely as Francoeur does betrays a lack of mastery of the strike zone, a deficiency pitchers inevitably learn to exploit. After the trade to the Mets, Francoeur hit better — a .311 average with ten homers in 308 plate appearances — but still didn't walk. It'll catch up with him, because it always does.
Francoeur is still an excellent defensive outfielder with a cannon arm, but if he doesn't walk, he'll eventually stop hitting. (He had a .343 batting average on balls in play as a Met, an unsustainable figure.) The fact is, until Francoeur learns to keep the bat on his shoulder when pitches are out of the strike zone, he's going to be a below-average player, incredible talent thwarted by a lack of personal discipline. When Francoeur connects, he looks like a superstar. But he's going to connect less and less. The Mets are about to learn what the Braves didn't want to but had no choice: Francoeur is all promise, little results. Baseball Prospectus calls him "an out machine with a good arm." He looks good in right field — but it's just a look.