August 15, 2003
"Nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes."
Allow me to amend this statement slightly; nothing is certain except death, taxes, and the Atlanta Braves drafting high school players from Georgia. After Roy Clark replaced Paul Snyder as the scouting director prior to the 2000 season, the Braves made a conscious effort to focus on local talent. During the next three drafts, Atlanta selected 23 players from the state of Georgia, including using their first selection in each draft on a high school player from the area.
In 2000, they spent their first pick on 6'7" right-hander Adam Wainwright, who has emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in the game. In 2001, they went with a shorter southpaw and ended up with Macay McBride, who may actually be closer to contributing to the Braves' staff than Wainwright. Last season brought us the worst-kept secret of the draft, when the Braves selected Jeff Francoeur and bought him out of a football scholarship to Clemson University.
Francoeur is the prototypical Braves prospect. Besides being born and raised in suburban Atlanta, he's a tremendous athlete who could excel at multiple sports. The Braves covet players with physical skills, trusting their player development personnel to translate the natural abilities into baseball productivity. While many organizations have attempted to copy this philosophy, few, if any, have managed to pull it off. Regardless of the lack of success of their imitators, however, the Braves have held firm to their beliefs. The high-risk, high-reward philosophies instituted in the early 90s helped produce the crop of homegrown talent that led to 11 consecutive division championships. While one could argue that there are more cost-effective ways to develop talent, the Braves certainly have reason to feel vindicated in their methods.
When you watch a player like Jeff Francoeur, it is easy to see why Atlanta's Director of Player Personnel, Dayton Moore, calls him "an especially gifted athlete." At 6'4", he generates a lot of power with his swing and hits everything hard. He has a quick stroke but has been out in front of off-speed pitches each time I have seen him, and timing is still an issue. A right-handed hitter, he has above-average power pulling the ball to left field, but still needs to learn how to hit with authority to right and center fields. His main focus this season has been hitting the ball up the middle, but most of his power still comes when he turns on a pitch. He covers the plate well but isn't very selective, and would be better served to wait for pitches that he can pull. He doesn't have any mechanical flaws in his swing that suggest he will have difficulty adjusting to higher-level pitching, so his plate discipline could be what makes or breaks him.
Despite his size, Francoeur runs well and will cover enough ground in center field to be an asset defensively. He reads the ball well off the bat and makes up a lot of ground in the outfield. He could run better routes, but that is true of nearly every 19-year-old. His arm is above average for center field and would allow him to move to right field if need be. While some projected him as a Gold Glove outfielder when he was drafted, I'm a little more conservative with my assessment. If Francoeur adds a normal amount of weight as he fills out, he will lose a bit of speed, neutralizing his best attribute in the field. That would likely result in an average defensive center fielder.
Despite his track speed, Francoeur hasn't learned baseball quickness yet. His lead step off first base is slow, and he hasn't learned to read a pitcher's delivery to the plate well enough to become a stolen base threat. He can be slow coming out of the box, but his wheels make up for it. He was noticeably slower on Monday than he was last year. Since he hasn't added weight yet, I will write that off to a bad day.
All of his tools are at least average, with his hitting ability being the best of the bunch. The Braves also love his character, and he's been noted as a natural leader with an unmatched work ethic. As Moore described: "Sometimes, you see players with similar physical capabilities, but they don't have the competitiveness that drives them to success. Jeff is extremely competitive, and he will work as hard as possible to become the best player he can be." Players with his offensive potential who can legitimately play premium defensive positions don't come around very often. Despite having Andruw Jones entrenched in center field for the foreseeable future, Francoeur's upside was simply too tempting for the Braves to pass up.
If the Braves can add polish to what Francoeur already possesses, watch out. His debut with Danville of the advanced rookie Appalachian League last summer made waves. He hit .327/.395/.585 in 147 at-bats as an 18-year-old, showing tremendous power for a teenager at a defensive skill position. He drew 15 walks against 34 strikeouts, and, like most kids his age, he showed an aggressiveness at the plate that would have to be restrained at higher levels.
His transition to the South Atlantic League hasn't been as smooth as Jeremy Hermida's, whom we profiled earlier, but Francoeur has shown flashes of what many expect. He's compiled a line of .286/.322/.451 this season, impressive for someone so young, but also revealing the major flaw in Francoeur's game. In 455 at-bats, he has managed just 22 walks, impatient even by the Braves' standards. He's managed to keep his strikeouts down however (55, or 12% of his at-bats), a positive sign. More importantly, Francoeur has shown recent improvement in his walk rates. After drawing just 15 walks in his first 401 at-bats (3.7 percent), he has taken seven free passes in his last 46 at-bats (15.1 percent).
There are sample-size issues at work here. But if Francoeur's recent surge matures into legitimate improvement, it could be a big step in his development. However, while the question of whether plate discipline is a born trait or a teachable skill is still up for debate, one thing has become clear; if there are people who can teach players how to walk, they don't work in the Atlanta Braves minor league system. From A.J. Zapp and Troy Cameron to more recent prospects Wilson Betemit and Carlos Duran, the Braves have been mostly unable to instill patience into their young hitters. I asked Moore about Francoeur's approach at the plate and the Braves offensive philosophy in general: "Jeff is a very aggressive hitter, and that is one of his strengths. One thing we haven't done, and won't do, is encourage him to take more pitches or work the count. As he gains experience, he will learn what pitches he can handle and which ones to let go, but we don't want to take away any of his aggressiveness."
Essentially, when it comes to learning plate discipline, he is on his own. I have a lot of respect for Moore--one of baseball's nice guys--and the player development staff that the Braves have assembled, but they do not view his lack of walks as an issue to be corrected. Some players can learn to control the strike zone on their own, but there is little doubt that it is an easier accomplishment with the encouragement and help of the coaches around you. While Francoeur is indeed a gifted player, his career projection could range anywhere from Richard Hidalgo or Vernon Wells down to Juan Encarnacion or worse based almost entirely on his ability to teach himself how to work the count for pitches to drive and for walks.