In a move that shocked no one, this morning the Royals signed Jeff Francoeur to a two-year extension. The deal will pay him $13.5 million between 2012 and 2013, which is a bit higher than I had guessed when writing about Francoeur earlier in the week. But it’s still a decent haul for a free-agent-to-be, and despite the immediately negative reaction to the deal, it could work out for the Royals.
The move means that the Royals have all three of their outfielders locked up through 2012. That’s beneficial to a system that is generally bereft of outfielders. In his pre-season Royals prospect list Marc Hulet ranked just two Kansas City outfielders in the top 20. The top one, Wil Myers, has struggled at Double-A, producing a 96 wRC+. That doesn’t necessarily hurt his prospect status, but it probably does push back his ETA. The other, Brett Eibner, has hit well enough, a 120 wRC+ in the Midwest League that includes a .226 ISO and a 13.2% walk rate. But that’s just A-ball, so he has a few more rungs to climb before he reaches the majors.
The only player this presumptively blocks is Lorenzo Cain, who came to the Royals as part of the Zack Greinke trade. Because all three Royals outfielders have played so well this year Cain has been stuck at Triple-A, though he’s done a fine job there. Since he plays in the PCL his numbers might come into question, but his .381 wOBA still translates to a 115 wRC+. He’d likely be with the big league club right now if they had at-bats for him, but they don’t. With Francoeur, Cabrera, and Gordon all slated to return in 2012, he could be slated for another year of minor-league duty.
The Royals could open up a spot for Cain this winter if they opt to trade high on Cabrera. That would put the Francoeur signing in a different light. After all, he’s not the one blocking a young and potentially useful player. If the Royals want to work Cain into their lineup next year, they could shop Cabrera, selling him as a player who turned a corner as he entered his prime. They couldn’t do the same with Francoeur, even though they share a similar story, because he was slated to reach free agency at season’s end. It’s possible that the Royals could use Cabrera to add to their cavalcade of prospects, though they could certainly opt to keep everyone on board and use Cain in case of injury.
In terms of the player himself, Francoeur has exceeded expectations this year, producing to this point the best numbers of his career. His walk rate sits at a career-high 6.6% and he’s hitting with the kind of power that he showed in 2006. While he did produce his typical April surge (.399 wOBA) followed by drop-offs in May and June (.302 and .291), he did get back on the horse, producing a .384 wOBA in July and a .345 wOBA so far this month. That provides further encouraging signs for his turnaround. At this point he has produced 2.3 WAR, or $10.1 million in value. If he gets to 3 WAR this year he’ll have produced $13.2 million in value, or roughly the value of the entire extension. In those terms, even if he reproduces his 2011 once in the next two years he’ll be worth the money.
Even if Francoeur doesn’t produce the numbers to justify his contract, it won’t be that great a burden on the Royals. Before signing Francoeur they had just $11.73 million on the books for 2012 and $9.88 for 2013. They’ll have a few arbitration raises due in those years, but they also have a slew of zero-to-two players, both currently in the majors and in their farm system, who will keep the payroll depressed. It’s also doubtful that they could land an impact free agent before their farm system starts to produce results. It’s unlikely, then, that Francoeur will become an albatross. It might be hard to sit him while paying him so much, but even then they can get value out of him via a platoon. Despite all of his troubles, he has still produced a career .353 wOBA against lefties.
While it might appear at first to be a laughable move, stemming from GM Dayton Moore’s affinity for Francoeur, the extension might work out well for the Royals. Francoeur has been quite good this year, producing career highs in many categories. At age 27, it’s possible that he has turned a corner and will remain moderately productive during this short extension. At the same time he’s only blocking a 20-year-old prospect who has struggled this year, for the first time in his career. That gives the Royals an opportunity to bring along Myers at a slower pace. The deal almost makes them more flexible, allowing them to trade Cabrera, another player having a career year, this winter if they want to free up a space for Cain. As with most initially laughable moves, this one makes quite a bit more sense when we look at all the layers under the humorous surface.