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Frenchy, and the Process

A pair of great, Kansas City-based writers, Sam Mellinger and Joe Posnanski, both weighed in recently on Jeff Francoeur and his role with the Royals. Mellinger discusses Francoeur’s new physique, and how dropping 25 pounds could help him regain his lost mojo. Poz focuses on Frenchy’s WINNING! personality, and his lack of success as a big league hitter.

High-quality discussion, to be sure. But all the discussion of Francoeur’s amazing start as a rookie, his complete lack of plate discipline, and his new Humpilates regimen ignores the key point here: He’s a warm body. That’s all Dayton Moore and the Royals wanted, or needed.

In signing Francoeur to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with an option for 2012, the Royals would seem to be violating any number of sabermetric principles. Don’t give playing time to known bad commodities. Don’t spend real money on (near-)replacement-level talent. And definitely don’t give playing time and real money to established, lousy players and block someone else’s path at the same time.

In the Royals’ case, there’s more going on. If you listen to Moore talk about Francoeur, it sounds like KC’s gem is discussing a star player. Moore recently described Frenchy as “an especially gifted athlete.”

Oops, my bad. That was then-Atlanta Director of Player Personnel Dayton Moore, in 2003, telling a young prospects writer named Dave Cameron that Francoeur was an especially gifted athlete. (The Internet never forgets.)

Same idea, though. When Moore praises Francoeur today, there’s a part of him that truly believes that a corner outfielder with a career .310 on-base percentage could still become a valuable player. That’s classic cognitive dissonance: If Francoeur is a lost cause, then Moore’s evaluation of Frenchy the prospect must have been horribly wrong.

Dissonance aside, though, Moore might not think that highly of Francoeur. After all, no GM is going to badmouth a player on his roster, no matter how much he paid — regardless of whether or not that GM projected the player as a star eight years earlier. Ultimately, as Kevin Goldstein and I discussed yesterday on the Jonah Keri Podcast, the Royals’ outfield situation was embarrassingly thin at the big league level. And with a slew of top prospects nearing the majors, cheap, one-year contracts for players like Francoeur and Melky Cabrera (one year, $1.25 million) aren’t egregious expenditures.

It’s not a perfect situation either, of course. As one Royals fan colleague said when we discussed the topic:

The problem is that the signings’ (Melky and Frenchy) talent is so bad, the AAAA OFers (Maier, Blanco, Cain) are on par or better than them. The $$$ spent on them is the same as they spent on Wil Myers’ signing bonus. The management bitches about the lack of $$$, but then spend what little they have stupidly.

Fair, for the most part. Though Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco are pretty much known, unimpressive commodities too.

Ultimately, there’s one overriding factor that may have made these signings happen: the tacit expectation of a salary floor in Major League Baseball. Plenty of teams (including the Royals themselves) have run low to very low payrolls in the past few years. Most of the time, we don’t hear any major complaints about it.

But occasionally, we do. When the Marlins’ string of dollar-store spending extended into the 2009-2010 off-season, the players union and Commissioner’s office banded together to chastise the club for its thriftiness. Two days later, Josh Johnson got a four-year, $39 million contract extension.

With the current collective bargaining agreement due to expire at the end of this season, one imagines that neither MLB nor the union wants to do anything blatantly adversarial, unless absolutely necessary. Not to say that anyone put a gun to Moore’s head and told him to spend money, or even that someone suggested it. But by signing Billy Butler to a four-year extension and yes, bringing in Francoeur and Cabrera for just under $4 million combined, the Royals likely ensured that conversation would never take place.

The Royals are unanimously considered owners of the strongest collection of prospects in the game. Goldstein said he’s never seen a crop as strong as the one KC has. Francoeur (and Cabrera) aren’t blocking any of those prospects on one-year deals. No harm, no foul.

Beyond that, Francoeur is personable enough to motivate esteemed writers to bang out gigantic articles and blog posts about him. He hits lefties well enough and fields well enough to be a potential (minor) trade chip at the deadline, much as he was last year. And there is a very, very slight chance that he delivers significant positive value for the first time in four years, even if he continues to draw walks once a decade.

Frenchy’s a fun guy, and a fun punching bag. But in major league terms, he’s just some guy. It’s safe to move on to other topics.