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Francoeur Is Destiny, or Contest Over

Let’s see: former Atlanta prospect from the early 2000s, terrible plate discipline, was last decent more than three seasons ago, strong arm, questionable range, reportedly a “good clubhouse guy” despite whining about losing playing time while playing horribly, a right-handed PowerBat (TM) without much power, platoon issues… That’s right, Jeff Francoeur has finally joined Dayton Moore’s Kansas City Royals. Like there was ever any doubt.

Yes, after years of innuendo and longing from far, Bob Dutton tweets that Francoeur will get $2.5 million dollars guaranteed with $500,000 in performance bonuses, and, naturally, a $3 million dollar mutual option for 2012. Dorks in blog comments have been ‘joking‘ about Francoeur’s inevitable reunion with Dayton Moore in KC for years, and now it has finally happened. What is there really left to say? Do we really need to explain that whatever he did five years ago, Jeff Francoeur is a terrible baseball player now? According to my own projections (a modified Marcels), Francoeur projects as a .259/.307/.399 hitter in 2011. That’s a .302 wOBA, or 10 runs below average over 700 plate appearances assuming 2010’s run environment.

Does that seem unfair? Over the past three seasons, Francoeur has actually hit .256/.301/.389 for a .298 wOBA. As an average defensive right fielder, that projection has him at around replacement level, and indeed, over the last three seasons his cumulative WAR rounds off to zero. But it is hard to figure out how good he is in right field. His 2007 performance was impressive, but is also temporally distant. Moreover, it relied heavily on a fantastic arm rating, and baserunners may have been more cautious since then. UZR and TotalZone have seen him as being between average and terrible the last few seasons, whlie DRS and scouts see him as good-to-great. But even if he’s an outstanding defensive outfielder, at the most optimistic he might be a 1-1.5 WAR player. Given the data, I’d say he’s more like an above-average defender, so altogether, once adjusted for playing time, he’s probably more like to 0.5 WAR. That’s about what he’s done each of the last couple of seasons. Assuming five million dollars per marginal win, the contract looks about right.

That assumes that he plays full-time for the Royals. However, while KC’s current outfield of Gregor Blanco, Mitch Maier, and Alex Gordon (I’ll leave aside the possibility that the Royals are going to put Jarrod ‘Outfield Tony Pena Jr.’ Dyson in center field next season) is far from impressive, Francoeur still probably shouldn’t start. He might be a better offensive player than Blanco or Maier (it’s close, my projections actually say he’s worse than either), but given that they are both center fielders, they are probably superior defenders. Moreover, they are both making the minimum for one more season. Granted, neither Blanco nor Maier have significant offensive upside, but do people really think Francoeur is brimming with potential after three years of sub-.300 wOBA performance? It isn’t as if there is an excessive amount of uncertainty with Francoeur, as he’s had almost 1800 plate appearances from 2008 to 2010.

Of course, Alex Gordon hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, either, and he’s about the same age as Francoeur. No doubt some people think Gordon is no better, and I’m hardly thrilled about his potential for 2011. Over 1041 major league plate appearances from 2008 to 2010, Gordon has hit .242/.337/.402 for a .326 wOBA. That is far from exciting, but it miles ahead of Francoeur. While Gordon’s outfield defense remains a mystery for now, it is highly unlikely that Francoeur’s own skills in the outfield can make up for the offensive difference between the two — I have Gordon as .329 wOBA hitter in 2011, or +5/700 (like Marcel, my projections do not take into account Gordon’s minor league numbers).

One might point out that Gordon, Blanco, and Maier are all left-handed, and Francoeur is a righty who has hit lefties well.. I’ve covered this before, however, and although Frenchy is an above average hitter against southpaws, he isn’t oustanding, and the reduced playing time as the lesser half of the platoon greatly mitigates the advantage.

I could go on about how even though the contract isn’t excessive, that a rebuilding team like the Royals shouldn’t be paying the market rate, especially not for platoon fourth outfielders with little upside. But really, by itself, this signing is no big deal. This isn’t a repeat of the Jose Guillen Fiasco. One pointless $2.5 million dollar contract won’t kill the team going forward by itself. Neither did the relatively small paychecks Mike Jacobs, Horacio Ramirez, Willie Bloomquist, Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel, Ron Mahay, or Jason Kendall, at least not considered individually.

And even then, my main point isn’t that it adds up to a lot of money down the tubes (although that is worth mentioning). The point is about Dayton Moore’s front office. Moore and his staff deserve a great deal of praise for assembling a farm system that is not only the consensus-best system in baseball at the moment, but that some are calling the best they’ve seen in years. But we also know that while a good farm system is necessary for a most teams to succeed, it isn’t sufficient. The Francoeur contract is just another sign that Dayton Moore has yet to understand how to efficiently and effectively add necessary extra pieces to a team from the outside.

On the bright side, Royals fans enjoy a victory in at least one sense: with both Francoeur and the man the Mets obtained from from Texas for him, Joaquin Arias, in the fold, and Omar Minaya no longer running the Mets, the Dayton Moore is probably the winner of the long, bitter struggle that was The Contest. There are always new challenges for a champion, of course, and Ruben Amaro (the Phillies were rumored to be pursuing Francouer at the Winter Meetings), Ned Colletti, and newcomer Mike Rizzo all could make formidable foes. With that in mind, take the following two tidbits how you will.

First, the four worst hitters hitters (by wOBA) among qualified players from 2008-2010.

127. Pedro Feliz, .284 wOBA
126. Jason Kendall, .288 wOBA
125. Yuniesky Betancourt, .291 wOBA
124. Jeff Francoeur, .298 wOBA

Now, the least valuable three (qualified) position players by FanGraphs WAR, 2008-2010:

127. Jose Guillen, -1.1 WAR
126. Yuniesky Betancourt, -0.8 WAR
125. Jeff Francoeur, 0.0 WAR

The Royals’ farm system likely makes any talk of “The Contest” irrelevant. Perhaps Dayton Moore will become another Dan O’Dowd, whose skill in building from within somehow manages to overcome questionable decisions on he free-agent market. But these “leader”-boards remind us that there is always a possibility for another Contest to breakout.