LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. – Jeff Francoeur, the once-upon-a-time “Natural” signed Tuesday to a minor league contract, is a nice spring conversation piece.
His blithe personality certainly will add a little life to the Braves crowded Florida clubhouse.
“I think we have the loudest team in the game now, with (Nick) Swisher, (Jason) Grilli and Francoeur,” Freddie Freeman joked Tuesday morning shortly after his arrival on site. “It’s going to be an exciting 7 o’clock in the morning every day.”
And you know you will be rooting for the former first-round pick out of Parkview – even under such modest conditions – to recapture some of those enchanted moments from his first seasons in Atlanta. The Braves, after all, train in a place that caters to healthy fantasies, and what could be a better one than Francoeur salvaging his career back where it all began?
The Braves and Francoeur are being re-introduced at a time when both parties look a little needy. For as much as Francoeur has wandered – playing with six teams since being traded away by the Braves in 2009 – and his stats have found some dark and murky depths, his numbers last season actually would have fit right in with the 67-win Braves of 2015. His 13 home runs for Philadelphia last year would have ranked him second among the Braves, same with his .433 slugging percentage (among players with at least 300 at-bats).
Practically, though, there seems little room for Francoeur on this roster (or, for that matter, in this spring clubhouse, with players doubling up on stalls here like this was an overbooked youth hostel).
The odds of him sticking seem long, what with Nick Markakis owning rightfield, big-ticket players like Michael Bourn and Swisher needing to be accounted for, and the presence of Ender Inciarte and Hector Olivera. And it might be a little tough to see him start a year in Gwinnett (that’s taking the going-home thing to an uncomfortable extreme). Where does Frenchy fit?
I’ve always wondered if Francoeur’s career arc would have been greatly different if he had broken in much more quietly somewhere else. Would he have had greater breathing room to develop, less pressure to live up to expectations run amok?
But that is unknowable. What the Braves at least can provide for Francoeur now – in partial repayment for some great memories – is a spring stage for him to prove that he still retains value. If not for the home team then maybe for one of the 23 other teams that haven’t yet had the pleasure of knowing him.