After hitting for a .345 AVG / 1.231 OPS this spring, Juan Francisco has been designated for assignment by the Brewers. The news broke Saturday afternoon following a series of tweets from Todd Rosiak that included –
No official announcement at first base until tomorrow, we’ve been told. Francisco’s locker is completely empty now, for what it’s worth.
— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) March 22, 2014
Francisco’s departure means that Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds will be the Brewers’ first base options, at least to start the season.
The Brewers’ decision to DFA Francisco came as a surprise to some. Francisco possesses massive power and, turning 27 in June, was primed to spend his peak power years in hitter-friendly Miller Park. Last season, between the Braves and Brewers, Francisco hit 18 home runs in 385 PA – a 4.7 HR%, over two points higher than the league average of 2.6 HR%. Those in the Francisco camp envisioned a Francisco/Reynolds platoon that would combine to hit 30-40 home runs. The numbers Francisco posted in spring training only buoyed the belief that there was upside in his bat.
In 13 spring training games, Francisco slashed .346/.500/.731 with a 1.231 OPS. Strong as those numbers may be, there is no proven correlation between spring training stats and the regular season. Remember, Yuniesky Betancourt hit .446/.450/.625 with a 1.075 OPS during spring training last season. Yet, while no Francisco fan would claim he was on track to hit .300, his numbers did point to an improved process at the plate, as evidenced by his 9 SO to 8 BB.
Francisco’s penchant to swing-and-miss has been his Achilles’ heel. Last season, his 35.8 K% was second worst amongst players with at least 300 PA, behind only the Astros’ Chris Carter’s 36.2 K%. This spring, Francisco managed a 26.5 K%. While the rate was still above league average, it was both trending in the right direction and could have been improved by simply having him sit against left-handed starters.
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss the drop in Francisco’s K% as a matter of “small sample size”, if Francisco’s BB% didn’t also indicate improving plate discipline. Last season, Francisco drew walks at a rate of 8.3 BB%, slightly above the league average of 7.9 BB%. This spring, Francisco walked at an impressive rate of 23.5 BB% — with his total of 8 BB second only to Rickie Weeks on the club.
Now, Francisco’s 23.5 BB% is unsustainable. Joey Votto, the new Greek God of Walks, only managed a 18.6 BB% last year. But the drop in K% and drastic increase in BB% were evidence of Francisco changing his process at the plate and pushing it in the right direction. Those signs of improvement, plus his undeniable power, are two of the main reasons some Brewers fans are unhappy with the decision to let him go. In their eyes, the Brewers gave up on the player with the most upside and, ultimately, lowered their overall performance ceiling at the position.
In Francisco’s stead, Lyle Overbay will return to Miller Park to be the left-handed bat in the first base platoon. Overbay had 486 PA with the Yankees last season and managed to hit for a .240 AVG / .688 OPS with 14 bombs. Unlike Francisco, there’s no untapped upside still in Overbay’s bat. Overbay had two strong years with the Crew in 2004 (122 OPS+) and 2005 (113 OPS+), but don’t expect a repeat performance. At age 37, Overbay hasn’t mustered an OPS+ over 100, league average, since 2010. He should provide better on-base skills than Francisco but less power.
In Todd Rosiak’s piece for the Journal-Sentinel, Ron Roenicke explained the decision to keep Overbay over Francisco came down to defense: “We feel we have better defense that way… We really feel like we’re going to pitch well this season. And because of that, we feel like we need to play good defense.” Overbay is the only natural first baseman of the group. He tallied 1,031 innings at first for the Yankees last season and posted a 2.7 UZR. Normalized, or if Overbay played first base like that for an entire season, Fangraphs pegs him as being worth 3.7 UZR/150.
To compare, let’s see how Overbay, Francisco, and Reynolds performed defensively at first last season —
Even if the methods behind determining defensive metrics can be a bit foggy, Francisco is an obvious defensive liability. No matter how much Francisco improved in camp and during the off-season, he had no chance of matching Overbay, who’s been picking it at first his entire career. In the end, Roenicke’s rationale was that Overbay’s defensive upside outweighed Francisco’s offensive potential. And, when framed by UZR, the decision is clear as day.
Francisco’s departure also means that the future of the Brewers’ first base situation is as unclear as ever. If kept, Francisco could have stayed under team control through the 2017 season. Consider him another name crossed off the list. Meanwhile, Reynolds and Overbay both signed one-year deals and the team’s minor league depth leaves much to be desired. And so the Brewers’ struggle to find a suitable replacement for Prince Fielder will continue into 2015.
Finally, last week, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs ranked all thirty clubs by their strength at first base. Using WAR, the Brewers’ stable of first basemen landed 27th, ahead of only the Pirates, Phillies, and Marlins. Sarris penciled in Francisco for 420 PA, a .241 AVG, and 0.4 WAR. Pulling Francisco from the equation should drop the Brewers a slot or two. Before winning the job, Overbay was counted as having a 0.0 WAR — the definition of replacement level. Nothing to get excited about but, after last season’s first base debacle, boringly average would be an improvement for the Brewers.
For those who preferred Francisco to Overbay, aiming for average was a disappointment. When the consensus is that “everything must go right” for the Brewers to contend, then the aim for average mentality doesn’t fit the narrative. For this season to be a success, the Brewers will have to hit on a long shot or two. Francisco might have been the bigger risk for the club but him playing to his potential also the biggest reward.
Around the halls of Disciples of Uecker, Francisco has commonly been called a lottery ticket. By letting Francisco go, the Brewers have decided to push. They have traded their ticket for a dollar and walked away, instead of rolling it into a second ticket, crossing their fingers, and hoping it pays out big the second time around.