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2008 Positional Preview: Right Field

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For Atlanta righfielder Jeff Francoeur, 2008 comes with very high expectations. The 24-year old, who was proclaimed "The Natural" by Sports Illustrated during his rookie season, gave the baseball world a glimpse of the raw power he possessed during his first season-and-a-half in the big leagues. He became known as the happy-go-lucky, free-swinging, power-hitting rightfielder with the cannon arm. That image changed some this past season as Francoeur accomplished his goal of improving the poor plate discipline that had been one of the big knocks on him during his pro career. While the improvement was very visible, it also took away from the 30-homerun he had previously exhibited. Fans and analysts alike are now wondering whether he can take the best of both worlds, combining his raw power and refined approach at the plate, to take a giant step toward the stardom that has been expected from him since he was drafted by the Braves. Francoeur took a very noticeable and impressive step in polishing himself as a baseball player this past season. There were a couple improvements tied in with his increased plate discipline and pitch selection. The most glaring to the average fan has to be his average, which jumped from .260 in '06, all the way to .293 last season. This is one of the ways that his improved approach at the plate manifested itself in something other than an increased number of walks. Francoeur showed pitchers that they had to throw him stuff to hit by laying off tons of balls that he would have undoubtedly swung at previously. Opposing pitchers had to start challenging him more in the strikezone and he got more to hit. The other very noticeable change was in his OBP. Combined with the 33-point jump in average, Francoeur's 2.7% increase (to 6.1%) in his BB% raised his OBP from a miserable .293 to a much more respectable .338 mark this past season. The big concern that people had about last year was a drop in homerun power. In almost the same number of plate appearances, Francoeur's long ball total dropped from 29 in the 2006 season to 19 in 2007. What I'm still grabbing onto as hope that he can put it all together next season is the 40 doubles Francoeur hit last year. That's 16 more than the year before in case you were wondering. I'm fairly confident moving forward that some of those doubles will start to turn into homers and bring him up into that 30-homerun range consistently. We see it a lot with players changing position, where their focus on one aspect of their game takes away from another area. Now that "Frenchy" is more confident in his ability to take pitches, I think we'll see his natural ability to drive a baseball start to show through as well. Francoeur really raised the bar for himself defensively with a Gold Glove Award last season. He probably didn't deserve it but that takes nothing away from the fact that he was very impressive in the field in 2007 and showed a lot of improvement in that area of his game. Defensive metrics and stats to try and measure a player's defensive value are pretty worthless, however if you watched Francoeur last season compared to his first two seasons in the majors, you saw much improved fielder out in right. While he isn't near Andruw Jones' ability defensively, Francoeur did take steps very similar to that of young Andruw this past season. He made far less of what would be considered "rookie mistakes" ---mistakes which we saw from him that were caused by either a lack of concentration or inexperience--- and he really let his athleticism and defensive tools show through. In addition to a decrease in stupid mistakes, Francoeur seemed to be taking better paths to the ball more consistently, and as always showed off one of the best outfield arms in baseball, registering a career-high 19 outfield assists in 2007. Was he deserving of a Gold Glove? Probably not. Is he one of the better defensive rightfielders in the game? Definitely. I'm quite optimistic that this homegrown rightfielder is on his path to stardom. He probably won't make the entire jump this year but I think we'll see another big step toward him reaching his potential. Bill James has a bit of an odd prediction before you even look at the stats, calling for Francoeur to play in only 148 games next season. This is the same Francoeur that has played in every single game over the past two seasons. Maybe he is guessing injury but I see no reason to assume that. James' prediction is for a .288/.333/.475. The power increase has to do with a rather large improvement in AB/HR and the prediction that Francoeur will also improve his doubles production from his 2007 rate. I guess you could say my prediction is a little more optimistic, mostly due to the fact that I see him playing in every game and getting a lot more than the 562 at-bats James is calling for. My projection is a line of .290/.340/.490. I expect him to be in the 25-homerun range next season with a good number of doubles (35+) and down the road I certainly expect a .500+ SLG, just not quite yet. Still that would be a very good season for Francoeur and probably provide Mark Teixeira with much better protection.

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