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NL $1 Option: Jeff Francis

After missing the entire 2009 season due to surgery on a torn labrum, Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis is back pitching and is in the running for the fifth starter’s job. Saturday’s outing was rough (4 IP, 6 R, 6 H) but should not detract from the fact that if he does make the rotation, Francis is an excellent $1 pitcher in NL-only leagues.

Before the injury, Francis was on his way to becoming one of the top young pitchers in the game. Over the 2006-07 seasons, he had 30 W, a 4.19 ERA and a 1.335 WHIP in his age 25 and 26 seasons. While he did not rack up strikeouts (282 in 414.1 IP), his K/9 went from 5.3 in 2006 to 6.9 in 2007 and he had a 2.62 K/BB ratio in the latter year.

Francis did this without overpowering stuff. His fastball averaged in the mid-80s over these two seasons and was actually a negative pitch in 2007. But he succeeded thanks to an extremely effective changeup. At 11.9 runs above average, Francis’ change was the seventh-best one in MLB in 2007. He also mixed in a curve ball, which was an average offering.

In 2008, Francis struggled right off the bat. He finally went on the disabled list at the end of June with shoulder inflammation and missed five weeks. After getting roughed up again in his first outing after being activated, Francis reeled off six strong starts (2.82 ERA, 24 Ks, 9 BB, 38.1 IP) before being shut down for good after September 12th. In February of 2009, he underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed the regular season.

Flash forward to 2010 and Francis has made four starts in the Cactus League. He is still a work in progress and the velocity on his fastball has not been consistent. Overall Francis has 13 IP, 16 H, 10 ER, 5 BB and 9 Ks. Francis needs the separation between his fastball and changeup to be significant in order for the latter pitch to succeed. He still has two more starts left this Spring to iron things out. However, as the team’s fifth starter, Francis would not pitch the early part of April and could have additional time in Arizona to refine his stuff.

In the end game, you want to take pitchers with both upside and a good shot at a starting spot. We know that Francis has significant upside, based upon what he has already done in the majors. And he should be the team’s fifth starter if he is healthy. Francis is battling journeymen Tim Redding and Gregory Smith for the final rotation slot and should be an easy choice if his shoulder is sound.

So, if you have time before your auction or draft, monitor Francis’ final two outings. Better results than his last performance would be nice, but the real key is that he logs innings and does not suffer any setbacks. If both of those things are true, Francis should be a prime target to fill out the back of your staff.