On Monday, the Brewers announced that they tendered the contracts of Juan Francisco and Marco Estrada, the only two arbitration-eligible players remaining on the roster.
What does this mean for the Brewers in 2014?
Well, obviously, it indicates the franchise’s direct intent to include Francisco and Estrada in the club’s future. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Francisco, 26, is expected to make about $1.4 after arbitration, while Estrada, 30, is looking at around $3.5 million. For the sake of this article, though, the focus will be on the former–that’s right: Juan Francisco talk!
After acquiring him in a June trade with Atlanta, the Brewers showed a consistent dedication to finding out what exactly they have in Francisco–and even after 270 plate appearances, 13 homers, and 95 strikeouts, that is a topic still up for debate.
When the Brewers traded minor league reliever Tom Keeling for Francisco after the Braves designated him for assignment, it was as if they went to the local gas station and swapped in a few bucks for a lottery ticket. At the time, the team was in no position to compete and, though whether or not they’ll compete in 2014 is to be seen, they would have to overcome a competitive NL Central to compete this upcoming season.It was a buy-low move on a big power bat that Doug Melvin didn’t hesitate on.
What the Brewers have and what they see in Francisco are two completely separate spectrums. On one hand, there’s no getting past the .297 OBP, 35.8 K%, 0.23 BB/K, and -8.7 UZR at first base over the course of his time with Atlanta and Milwaukee; on the other side, though, we have a home run every 21 plate appearances, .443 slugging while with the Brewers, 12 doubles, and a .195 ISO. It’s important to note that all that was accomplished with Francisco not even succeeding in putting the ball in play over one-third of the time.
The Brewers dealt with both the good and the bad from Francisco in 2013, appearing in over 20 games in each month from June to September. Judging by the Brewers tendering Francisco and rewarding (?) him with a bigger payday for 2014, the team caught enough bright spots to include him in their plans going forth. But with news surfacing of former Brewers All Star and free agent first baseman Corey Hart being medically cleared to partake in baseball activities, did Melvin and Ron Roenicke see enough bright spots to hand the starting first base job to Francisco?
My guess is a definitive “no”.
By far, Francisco’s greatest weakness was his inability to hit the breaking ball. It was so evident that, at times, I almost wanted to see teams throw him only breaking pitches all game. Late in the season, hitting coach Johnny Narron worked with Francisco to help eliminate the leg kick that preceded his swing. That leg kick, more often than not, caused too much movement before the pitch and rarely was Francisco not sitting out in front of the heavy diet of curveballs and sliders that pitchers began to throw at him.
The disparities between Francisco’s fastball/sinker numbers versus his outcomes on breaking pitches from June 4 until the end of the season (his time spent in Milwaukee) is incredibly significant, as provided by Brooks Baseball.
Here’s a look at the change in Francisco’s swing, which the Brewers are holding out hope cuts down on his strikeout numbers in 2014.
June 15 vs. Cincinnati
Here’s another, from late in September against Atlanta.
Unlike in the top picture, Francisco’s right foot isn’t being lifted high off the ground. Instead of twisting his entire body, Francisco started making a concerted effort to simplify the swing. It’s much more of a subtle adjustment, but it makes Francisco rely on his hands more than he did previously, when his entire 240-lb. frame was being thrown into the swing. With his size and natural uppercut swing, Francisco can still hit 20 homers a year without the entire twisting of his upper body.
Going forth, though they may have showed interest in what he could be, the Brewers are by no means committed to Francisco as the franchise’s future first baseman (alliteration, anyone?). They bought low when they acquired him as a raw power hitter with upside of 20+ homers as an everyday corner infielder.
Defensively, my grandmother likes to tell me that Francisco deserves a Gold Glove. the Brewers were the first team to test Francisco out as a potential first baseman after he struggled at the hot corner over 880 innings between the Reds and Braves. In 532.1 innings at first, made 53 out of 74 plays “in his zone” for a .716 RZR. For reference, league average RZR for first basemen last season was .802. Francisco also posted a DRS of -4 and a UZR of -8.7. Long-term, Francisco projects as a first baseman for the Brewers–thus why they tested him out there in 2013 and decided to tender him for 2014 after the conclusion of that test–but for the upcoming season, his flexibility at both corner positions is a bonus for the upcoming season.
Aramis Ramirez returns as the starting third baseman for his third season with the Brewers after an injury-plagued 2013 season. The question surrounding Ramirez isn’t about him receiving playing time, as he projects to be an efficient run-producer in the middle of the Brewers lineup, but rather around his ability to remain healthy. At 35, Ramirez can probably no longer play every day and, because of this, Francisco serves as a viable fill-in for the obligatory Ned Yost Sunday Special.
As it stands, Francisco, Sean Halton and Hunter Morris are the only first basemen on the 40-man roster. Francisco just made the move to first base last season, Halton hit .238 in 42 games as a first-year player, and Hunter Morris had a down year in AAA. It’s very likely the Brewers will bring back Hart at (hopefully) a hometown discount price after he missed all of 2013 with an injury. In that instance, the same case that applies to Ramirez could be placed on Hart, as well.
Francisco, who hits right-handed pitching (.234/.305/.443) much better than left-handed (.156/.206/.219), could easily spell the right-handed hitting Ramirez and Hart.
Whether the Brewers reach out to Hart is yet to be seen, but, by tendering Francisco they expressed a curious interest in finding out what exactly they have in their free-swinging first baseman….because, at the moment, that’s very much so still to be determined.