With Chipper Jones on the DL for the first two weeks of the season, the Braves traded one of their top pitching prospects, J.J. Hoover, to acquire Reds third base prospect Juan Francisco. Hoover, whom Marc Hulet recently ranked as the 13th-best prospect in the Braves system, goes to Cincinnati in a trade for the powerful but strikeout-prone third baseman.
Hoover, a 10th-round draft pick by the Braves in 2008, likely had more use to other teams than he did to the Braves. Last year, the Braves converted Hoover to a bullpen/swingman role, in part because the organization had so many other high-profile starters in the high minors. Moreover, 2008 was a pitching-heavy draft for the Braves, whose third-round pick was Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel, and whose 7th- and 8th-round picks were Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer, centerpieces in the trade that brought Michael Bourn to the Braves.
Hoover is no slouch, though. Hulet writes that he “has the potential to be a solid No. 4 starter at the big league level.” Last September, John Sickels wrote the same, writing:
Hoover has the four classic pitches: fastball, curveball, slider, changeup. His heater is a tick above average in the low 90s, but works well due to the contrast with his secondary pitches. All three of his non-fastball offerings are rated as solid major league average. Although he doesn’t have a genuine plus pitch, none of them are weak, arsenal is diverse, he mixes them well, throws strikes, and has been extremely durable in his career. He’s maintained his strikeout rate and K/BB ratios at each level, and he’s never had a serious injury. He is a strong fly ball pitcher, but doesn’t give up an excessive number of home runs.
For most teams, Hoover would profile as a solid number three or four starter, chewing up innings at a good clip with consistent performance.
With Jones on the DL, Francisco may begin the season as the Braves’ third baseman. In recent years, Martin Prado has been the Braves’ backup third baseman of choice, averaging 42 games a year at third from 2009-2011, despite serving as the Braves’ primary second baseman in 2010 and primary left fielder in 2011. The Francisco trade may signify that the Braves hope Francisco will be the primary backup, and that they intend to keep Martin Prado at one position as much as possible in the 2012 season.
Francisco is 24 years old and has received cups of coffee in the majors in each of the last three seasons. Those three shuttle seasons are one reason he was available: he’s out of options, and therefore of greater value to the Braves than he was to the Reds. He’s got real power — one reason that his nickname is “El Niño Destructor” — but very weak plate discipline. As Carson Cistulli wrote in his Fangraphs+ profile:
Juan Francisco plays real baseball the way many of us do video-game baseball — which is to say, he swings basically all the time and with abandon. Even the limited sample that is his major-league career to date bears this out: in his first 181 plate appearances, Francisco has posted a PITCHf/x O-Swing rate of 40.8%, relative to a league-average mark of ca. 28.0% over that stretch. Francisco’s 44.6% O-Swing from 2011 (97 PA) would’ve placed him second only to Vladimir Guerrero (45.2%) among the league’s 145 qualified batters. Still, he’s hit 38 home runs in 742 Triple-A plate appearances and is entering just his age-25 season, suggesting that there’s room for development.
Francisco’s major league OBP is actually higher than his minor league OBP: in 181 PA in the majors, he’s hitting .284/.331/.450, while in 2554 PA in the minors, he’s hitting .286/.317/.502. (In other words, his minor league OBP is bad.) His minor league strikeout to walk ratio is 5.96-to-1, and his minor league walk rate is 3.9 percent. He can bomb the ball, but poor plate discipline has dogged him since the Reds signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, and eight years later, he doesn’t appear to have solved the problem.
However, the Braves won’t need him to. As long as he can play 40-50 games at third base, hit the occasional home run, and strike out rather than ground into double plays, he’ll give them what they need this year. Next year, after Chipper Jones’s retirement, the Braves will need to decide whether he’s their third baseman of the future. Regardless of whether he’s Mr. Right, he’ll suit them as Mr. Right Now.