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March 3, 2011

Painting the Black

Outfield Flops on the Rebound?

by R.J. Anderson

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Spring training is not spring training without stories of former top prospects attempting to rekindle their baseball flames with a new team. This spring is no different, as a trio of outfield busts are working hard at various camps to earn one more shot at the big leagues.

The Florida Marlins selected Jeremy Hermida with the 11th overall pick in the 2002 draft and watched him blossom into one of the game’s better young hitters. His prospect status reached its apex in 2006, when Baseball America placed him on the cover of their annual handbook while also ranking him as the fourth-best prospect in the game. After a stellar 2007 season in which Hermida hit .296/.369/.501, he managed back-to-back underwhelming campaigns. The combination of disappointment and rising costs forced the Marlins to trade Hermida to the Boston Red Sox during last offseason, but he ended the season with the Oakland Athletics.

Hermida has since latched onto another organization, this time the Cincinnati Reds. For the first time in a while, he’s fighting for a job and his prospects of breaking into the team’s deep outfield do not appear promising, at least not early on. Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, PECOTA, does not foresee a Lazarus-like return to glory for the 27-year-old. Instead, PECOTA has Hermida projected to hit .250/.323/.399, while comparing him to Gary Matthews (the original Sarge, not Junior), Rico Carty, and David Murphy.

Jeff Francoeur graced a cover of his own during the early days of his big-league career, as Sports Illustrated cursed the youngster by proclaiming him as “The Natural” after a torrid start. Francoeur’s 2005 season was impressive, no doubt, but his career has taken a downward ride since. The discernable low point came in 2009, when the Atlanta Braves traded the right fielder within the division for another outfielder, a clear sign that they weren't worried about the damage he might do to them as a Met. After roughly a year in New YORK, Francoeur again switched locales and joined the playoff-bound Texas Rangers. Francoeur is now with the Kansas City Royals, where this figures to be his last legitimate chance to prove himself worthy of everyday play.

The only consistent ability Francoeur has demonstrated is hitting left-handed pitching (.299/.343/.481 career) and his struggles with the strike zone as well as his suddenly lacking power have left him as little more than a platoon corner outfielder. PECOTA is none too optimistic on him either, and sees a .261/.306/.395 line with his top comparables including Vernon Wells, Jose Castillo, and (surprisingly) Cal Ripken Jr., an indication of how unusual Frenchy's career has been already. Perhaps the best asset Francoeur has going for him is his ability to charm beat writers and coaches with a likeable approach to the job. Eventually, Francoeur’s results will have to begin matching the superlatives about his attitude; otherwise, he’s heading for a coaching position.

On the opposite side of the perceived character spectrum is Lastings Milledge. A hotshot with the Mets, Milledge fell out of favor with the organization quickly, perhaps because of his disappointing performance as much as any on or off-the-field antic. A move to the Washington Nationals did not cause Milledge to straighten up, and his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates can be categorized as disappointing.

Milledge is now with the Chicago White Sox and, like Francoeur, fills the role of a right-handed corner outfielder, but little more. PECOTA nails his role with a comparables list of Ben Francisco, Chris Pettit, and Shannon Stewart, but does not see a revival on the South Side either, with a projected line of.264/.324/.384. If Milledge’s problems are truly with focus, then one has to wonder if this is a make-or-break stop in his career, as working under manager Ozzie Guillen should be enough to scare him straight.

Since Francoeur is the only player on a big-league contract, he becomes the most likely player to break camp with his team. Francoeur might be the member of the trio who will have the longest career within baseball too, as teams genuinely seem to enjoy his presence—a feature which ostensibly could lead to an announcing or coaching gig. Locating the player who will have the most successful playing career is a tedious, if not interesting, proposition. Simply based on batting hand and assuming the player will be used in a platoon situation, then Hermida becomes the one used most often, but there’s always the chance he does not receive the playing time in order to fulfill the prophecy. At least not until next spring.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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