Jeff Francoeur | New York | OF
2009 Final Stats: .280/.309/.423
Sometimes, a change of scenery is all it takes. Francoeur, who had lived in the Atlanta area his entire life, never lived up to the promise he’d shown in bursts throughout his career, particularly when he hit .300/.336/.549 as a 21-year-old rookie in 2005.
He followed this up with two seasons of .276/.315/.446 baseball, both 100+ RBI seasons, but with poor peripherals—his 0.25 BB/K ratio in particular was problematic, despite his .80 contact rate. His power numbers sagged, thanks to an HR/FB rate that dropped from 13.2 percent to 7.8 percent over that time, and an XBH% that fell from 12.8 percent to 8.5 percent.
Then came 2008, when he did so poorly that the Braves sent him all the way back to Double-A to work on his swing, uniting him with his former hitting coach, manager Phillip Wellman, but Frenchy actually hit worse upon his return. He finished the year with a .239/.294/.359 line, including a scant 11 home runs and 71 RBIs. Those kind of numbers wouldn’t be acceptable for a middle infielder, let alone a corner outfielder.
And so when he started 2009 in a similar vein, hitting .250/.282/.352, they shocked him by sending him to the Mets for the oft-concussed Ryan Church. Shaken, Francoeur found his hitting stroke in Citi Field. Despite a similar number of at-bats, he racked up a .311/.338/.498 line with the Mets, doubling his home runs from five to 10 and nearly doing so with his doubles, which rose from 12 to 20. His BB/K rate remained fairly steady (.26 with New York vs .24 with Atlanta) while his line drive rate jumped from 18 percent to 24 percent, and his HR/FB rate more than doubled from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.
Incredibly, he accomplished this despite tearing the collateral ligament in his left thumb while making a catch on Aug. 23, after which his line improved to .319/.342/.493 over the remaining 36 games. Francoeur underwent surgery on the thumb at the end of the season and is expected to be fine for spring training. Speculators wonder if that injury could diminish his power, but it didn’t seem to hold him back much while it was torn; hard to see it hampering him when it’s healed.
The Mets see Frenchy as a vital part of their future plans, and are reportedly looking to sign him to a three-year deal. He would be arbitration-eligible otherwise, with an expected free agency date of 2012. Are the Mets buying high on a 75-game sample? More importantly, what should fantasy owners do?
I wouldn’t offer the Mets’ excitement over Frenchy’s resurgence as a reason to recommend Francoeur, but there have been some good signs of late. His poor plate discipline has held steady in the .25-.30 BB/K range, but 2009 saw him reverse a GB% that had been hovering in the 45 percent range the past three seasons; with the Mets, he lowered that to 34 percent, while bringing his LD% to a career-high 24 percent.
His subpar 2008 could have been due to a .274 BABIP, which continued in 2009 with a .276 BABIP in Atlanta before he jacked it up to .336 with the Mets. A more telling stat would be his lack of aggression in 2008—always a hacker on pitches inside the zone (80-plus percent for his career), he dipped to 76 percent in ’08, probably because of coaching to tell him to take more pitches, even ones that look good.
Unfortunately, that’s not Frenchy’s M.O.—he’s a free swinger, both inside and outside the zone. Always well above league average in making contact on pitches inside the zone, he’s also gotten better at making contact with pitches the rest of the league would leave alone. While he only made contact with 45 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2005, he can now get wood on 66 percent of those same balls, a rate that exceeds the league average of 61%. In that same time, he’s improved his overall contact skills from 72 percent to 82 percent.
He’s a free swinger, but he also makes contact, which can keep him alive in counts and maybe even land a few bad balls fair. That’s a good thing from a guy who doesn’t know how to take a walk, and it’s dropped his strikeout percentage from 23 percent to 16 percent since his rookie year. Not knowing a strike from a ball doesn’t matter as much to Francoeur, since he can still get a bat on it, no matter what the ump thinks it will be.
That’s not a lot to recommend a guy on, particularly one with a history of disappointing fantasy owners like me, and many of you, and coming off an injured thumb. There are better gambles to make, but don’t forget that the kid’s only 26 next year, so he could still regain a bit of his tarnished luster. And you may find that he’s undervalued by other owners, making him a good late-round or low-bid gamble. It looks like he’ll get ample chance to prove he’s really arrived in New York, so you don’t have to worry about a hasty hook from the manager, but he remains a guy with a marginal skill set and a moderately low ceiling for a corner outfielder.
Kyle Blanks | San Diego | 1B/OF
2009 Final Stats: .250/.355/.514
Blanks was Baseball America’s choice for top Padres prospect in 2009, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a big fella (6’6″, 280 lbs) who doesn’t hit like one—yet.
A career .304/.393/.505 hitter in the minors, he has steadily improved his batting eye (rising from .51 BB/K to .62 in five seasons) and contact rate (rising from .70 to .82 in his last full minor-league season). Despite his size, he’s not a pull hitter and hits well to all fields, an approach that has nonetheless resulted in 73 home runs and 93 2Bs in 1662 at-bats in the minors.
That’s what makes scouts salivate over Blanks: he’s got the tools to be a great power hitter, but hasn’t started to try to swing for the fences. Power is something that hitters can develop as they get older (Blanks turned 23 this season), while strike zone judgment and contact skills are abilities that tend to plateau fairly quickly. Equally promising, he hasn’t shown much of a platoon split in the minors, actually hitting a tad better (.914 OPS) against fellow righties than southpaws (.869 OPS).
After only a half season at Triple-A in 2009, Blanks got the call to the majors in mid-June and had some great moments, including a 10-game stretch to finish July when he hit .343/.465/.800, with five home runs but just nine RBIs, thanks to the Padres’ moribund offense. That was but a taste of what Blanks could bring in the future, once he figures out major-league pitching (his contact rate slipped to 63% and his BB/K fell to .33 in his 148 at-bat debut).
He ended the season on a down note, as the Padres shut him down due to a torn plantar fascis tendon, or a more severe form of plantar fasciitis. This is not a serious condition and shouldn’t affect him next year, so long as he stretches his feet better to avoid reinjuring it.
The question with Blanks isn’t so much his makeup, as he did little to diminish the expectations around him, as it is where he’ll play. He played first base almost exclusively in the minors, with a few games at outfield when they were ready to promote him. He’s blocked at first base by Adrian Gonzalez, whose fate lies in the hands of new Padres GM Jed Hoyer. Hired at the end of October, Hoyer has announced his desire to build the club from within, and rumors about a swap of Gonzalez followed almost immediately.
Even if the Pads elect to keep Gonzalez, Blanks has played well enough in the outfield to merit a corner role there, most likely in left. Assuming they don’t trade their current outfield talent or bring in any free agents, Blanks is expected to share time with Will Venable, Chase Headley and Tony Gwynn, Jr. Despite his fairly impressive 2009 season, Gwynn is probably the odd man out in that configuration, although Headley could move to third if San Diego trades Kouzmanoff.
For fantasy owners, Blanks has more value as a corner outfielder, though he’s no slouch at first base, either. Regardless of where he plays, he should get nearly full-time at-bats, with that “nearly” qualifier removed if he impresses early. Obviously, his chances to maximize his playing time are improved with any trade of Gonzalez or any of the other outfield components, but Blanks is going to be in the field, no matter what. Hitting at PETCO will water his numbers down a bit, but Gonzalez hasn’t suffered all that much, and Blanks’ ability to use the entire field makes him an even better candidate to excel at baseball’s least friendly hitting environment.
Keeper leagues should have him, leagues that count OBP should be especially watchful of him, and every owner should be ready to bid an extra buck or two. Don’t go crazy, as he’s still fairly green, but Blanks is an excellent long-term bet and a very good short-term one.
Scott Elbert | Los Angeles | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.6 K/9, 3.0 K/BB, 5.03 ERA
In 2004, the Dodgers made Scott Elbert their first pick, 17th overall in the first round, and ahead of current major-leaguers like Huston Street and J.P Howell, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations yet. This has largely been due to shoulder surgeries that kept him off the mound for chunks of 2007 and 2008, though he hasn’t been great in the bigs, either.
With a fastball in the mid-90s, a hard curve and a change that are all plus pitches, lefty Elbert could be a starter or reliever, and he’s done a little bit of both so far. In the minors, mostly at Double-A, his 3.27 ERA, 1.29 WHIP are due to his 10.5 K/9 and 0.7 HR/9, but his 4.8 BB/9 have been problematic. He’s shaved that rate as he’s progressed; his 4.1 in 2009 (at Double-A and Triple-A) is his career best.
Elbert reached the majors in 2008, but pitched only briefly, and then spent 2009 racing to and from Chavez Ravine, with four call-ups that saw him pitch only 19.1 major-league innings, all in relief. In that time, he struck out 9.6 per 9, only walked 3.2 per 9, but gave up four home runs for a poor 1.8 HR/9 rate.
It’s not surprising to see a guy struggle when he’s had fewer than 35 innings of work at Triple-A. One of the concerns was his increased hit rate, which shot from 4.8 last year to 8.7 this year, undoubtedly the product of his attempt to keep the ball in the zone and his walks down.
Something else he needs to work on is his platoon splits. Elbert has controlled lefties well in his minor league career, with a .154 BAA and a 2.87 FIP. Righties, on the other hand, have tuned him up (relatively speaking) with a .216 BAA, but (more importantly) a 4.02 FIP. Lefties hit 51.5 percent ground balls against him (40 percent vs. righties), which has translated into righties hitting 13.6 percent line drives (10.5 percent vs. lefties).
That may not seem like much, but his 2009 numbers in the minors have showed that split widening, not shrinking. He held lefties to a .162 BAA and a 1.44 FIP, but righties hit .276 and his FIP was 3.88 against them. Here, too, lefties hit 57.5 GB% (43 percent vs. righties), and righties hit 20.6 percent line drives (12.5 percent vs. lefties).
These are correctable, particularly from a 24-year-old, but they may hint at his future: if those platoon splits continue to diverge, he’s going to slot in as a reliever, possibly a lefty specialist, which is not what the Dodgers necessarily expected when they picked him so early.
Also, Los Angeles is currently shopping for a No. 1 starter on the market, which puts several young candidates ahead of him in the rotation: Kershaw, Billingsley and Kuroda will all be there in 2010, and all are much farther along than Elbert. Add a free-agent No. 1 to the mix, and that leaves just one rotation spot for Elbert.
He should compete for that spot in spring training, but I’m betting he’s going to return to Triple-A for at least part of next season. He needs some polish, and his undetermined role means he’s even less valuable for fantasy owners. His talent (and the Dodgers’ ability to train young pitchers) means he’s still someone to keep an eye on, but I’d expect that to be late 2010 or 2011 at the earliest. Don’t draft him, but keep him on your watchlist, particularly if the Dodgers’ staff struggles.
Next week, we’ll talk about Jake Fox, Jordan Zimmerman, and Matt Latos. We’ll follow that with a Brewers’ fest of Corey Hart, Matt Gamel, and Ben Sheets. Chris Ianetta, Joe Blanton and Madison Bumgarner will come the week after, along with whomever else THTF readers want to hear about.
Leave your suggestions in the comments below!