Welcome to Rounding the Bases, the weekly column where Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski discuss the big questiosn facing the Brewers this week. You can continue the discussion on Twitter by Following @RyanTopp and @Steve Garczynski.
As the Brewers continue their march towards a trade deadline sell off and a top-five pick in the 2014 Draft, it’s been hard at times to find things to be legitimately excited about. Sure, Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez are both having wonderful, all-star level seasons, and look a lot like pieces around which a good team can be built. Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy both have gotten hot after slow starts, and Kyle Lohse has been roughly as good as could have been reasonably expected, but those aren’t really “exciting” things.
Then on June 3rd, in a move that seemed anything but scintillating, the Brewers traded minor leaguer Thomas Keeling to the Braves for a soon-to-be 26-year-old corner infielder Juan Francisco. After getting only one hit in his first 28 trips to the plate with the Brewers, Francisco has heated up quite a bit, hitting .306/.380/.661 with six home runs since. Obviously a small sample, but it’s still interesting.
So, are you excited about Francisco?
Excited? That’s an overstatement. Intrigued is probably a better way to describe my interest in Juan Francisco. He’s always been more of a one big tool guy (power) than a well rounded player. Every year that he was listed in the Baseball Prospectus Reds Top 11 Prospects, Kevin Goldstein noted that he had a “swing at everything approach,” and he showed very little progress from year to year.
2008: Francisco needs to work on his approach… or work on having any approach at all after racking up 161 strikeouts against just 23 walks last year. He’ll swing at anything, anytime and consistently finds himself behind in the count.
2009: Francisco will swing at any pitch thrown to him, showing almost nothing in the way of an approach or strike-zone control.
2010: In three full minor-league seasons, Francisco has struck out 399 times in 394 games while drawing only 50 walks, so to say his approach needs work is being kind, as he flails at nearly all secondary pitches, no matter the location.
2011: He has always been an impatient hitter, and still chases the same outside breaking balls that he did three years ago.
That hasn’t really changed in the majors. In 62 games this season, he’s struck out 68 times, continuing the trend he started in the minor leagues. I’m not going to freak out about a guy who strikes out if it comes with a hefty amount of power. Still, it worries me that his hit tool might not play long-term. I view Francisco as a fun player to have at first base, especially on a bad team that needs someone to fill when their plans fall apart like the Brewers’ with Hart’s injuries. It’s hard to view him as a guy who has much value beyond the next season or two.
That assessment may turn out to be true. He’s clearly a flawed player, most notably he’s struggled his entire career hitting lefties, posting a miserable .170/.204/.205 line in limited plate appearances against them. If he ever going to become an everyday starter, that is obviously going to have to be improved upon.
Still, there is considerable reason for optimism that he is turning it around when it comes to the plate discipline aspect of his game offensively. Since he just his the 600 career plate appearance mark and they’re spread out over parts of five seasons, we’re going to be dealing with some small samples, but there is some evidence to suggest that he’s getting better.
I threw out 2009 and 2010 because he didn’t get even 60 plate appearances in either season, and when he did get into games it was most often as a pinch hitter. As you can see, he is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, thus at fewer total pitches and probably not coincidentally, he is taking more walks than ever now.
The main advantage of this improved discipline is it’s allowing him to pick a few more good pitches to put big swings on and tap into his massive raw power. In this era of reduced offense in baseball, teams have to try and find power where they can, and Francisco definitely has that tool to work with. In their 2009 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America had this to say about it:
He appeared in the Futures Game last year, wowing observers with his power during batting practice. Francisco’s game is all about power, and he can drive the ball out of any part of any park. He has a quick bat and his long arms give him tremendous leverage.
Yes, he still strikes out more than you would like to see, but that isn’t an automatic disqualifier for him being productive. He’s always done a solid job of taking pitches, and his 3.78 pitches per plate appearance puts him right near guys like Justin Morneau, Prince Fielder, and Chris Davis this year. If he can continue to refine his approach at the plate, cut down some on the swings and misses while taking a few more walks, he could become a truly dangerous power hitter.
That’s a lot of “if’s” for a guy whose ISO is closer to Chris Young than it is to Mark Reynolds. He has plenty of raw power, it just hasn’t seemed to be game power until recently. Combine that with a guy who is currently passable at third base, but long-term will likely grow out of the position, I’m not sure he’s cut out to be a good contributing first baseman. A platoon player is most likely his best destination. For his career, he’s a .270/.325/.492 hitter against righties and that can play. It’s just about the production that a healthy Corey Hart would provide, Francisco will need a weak side of the platoon to make it worthwhile, and that’s considering he gets stronger at digging throws.
There is the question about how well Francisco will age considering his body type. Any write-up of the guy is guaranteed to include the word “soft” when describing his body. That might work at age 26, but it also means that the aging curve will probably catch up in a hurry. His glove will suffer and injuries will likely increase. He’s already dealt with a few lower leg injuries, and had surgery performed on his meniscus. We’ve seen how a meniscus injury can start as something minor and turn into a significant injury with aborted rehab attempts when guys get over 30.
Francisco is doing some good things right now and he has some tools to be productive. I’m just not ready to say that he’s turned some corner and is now a player that the Brewers should make long-term team decisions around.
I think that’s fair. He’s not a Segura or Gomez, a guy you’re planning around for the next few years. He may turn out to be useful, but then again more plate appearances may further expose his weaknesses to pitchers and the level of contact needed to play on a corner may just not be there over the long haul.
The concerns about the body and defense are true. Both UZR and FRAA put his career defense at 3B within a couple runs of average, so he’s playable, but mostly just because he has a 70 arm and still moves reasonably well for his size. If he’s going to have a long-term future in MLB, it’s almost certainly going to be at first, and the bar there for offense is pretty high. I’m confident that given reps, he’ll become better at digging out throws and probably end up an above average-ish defender at first for a while.
Ultimately, it’s not likely he’ll ever be more than a platoon slugger, but he does offer left-handed power and there do seem to be some signs of growth in his offensive game. He’s a guy that a team in a non-competitive phase should give a shot to prove his worth. If he does something, great. If not, they haven’t wasted much money or blocked anyone who is crying out for a shot at first base immediately, so little is ultimately lost.