Huge news from the Braves today, as they announced they have traded former SI cover boy and "face of the franchise" right fielder Jeff Francoeur to the New York Mets for outfielder Ryan Church. The Braves also included approximately $250,000 to help offset the difference in cost (Francoeur is due $3.375 million for the '09 season, whereas Church is only signed for $2.8 million).
Church is in his age-30 season, hitting .280/.332/.375 so far in 2009, and he has a career .273/.345/.444 line across six major-league seasons. Church is in his second arbitration-eligible season, meaning he will be under control for 2010 before becoming a free agent.
Tom's Take: We know Frank Wren has been trying to offload Francoeur for some time now, and frankly I am amazed that the Braves were able to get an established major-league player in return. I figured we would get a second-tier prospect at best. This is a straight-up challenge trade; both teams are simply taking their chances with struggling players. In this case, both GMs decided that the devil they didn't knew was better than the one they did. And this may be the strangest challenge trade I've ever seen, not only in the middle of the season but within the division.
OK, the bad news first. In a way, both of these guys are failing to live up to their potential. Francoeur's upside has been talked about to no end in Braves' circles, and even in spite of all his struggles, there's still a chance he becomes a star. Church, on the other hand, has been struggling ostensibly for a different reason: on May 20th of last year, Church was kneed in the helmet as he was attempting to break up a double play, and he suffered his second concussion of the 2008 campaign. He would return to the DL twice, the second time for nearly two months, as he dealt with chronic migraines and post-concussive syndrome. He really struggled when he did play, hitting just .219/.305/.307, and his production has never returned to its pre-concussion levels. From this standpoint, Francoeur has something of an advantage, because while plate discipline may be something a coach can teach you, nobody can really teach you to recover from two concussions. Concussions, after all, are downright scary, and sports science is just beginning to understand the deep and sometimes irreversible effects they cause.
Furthermore, it's important to remember that if something does click for Francoeur, we're going to have to face him many times a year in the middle of the lineup of our division rivals.
Here's why I put aside those two concerns though: on the concussion issue, there are definitely signs that Church has recovered well. First, his overall line masks two significant splits: his platoon split and his home/road split. He's got a solid .785 OPS against right-handed pitchers, with a .310/.360/.425 line, as compared to a meager .414 OPS against southpaws (this is a career trend, not a new one, by the way). Hopefully Bobby has the good sense to play Matt Diaz against left-handed pitchers. (As a side note, would it really be too much to ask that Nate McLouth play right field against southpaws, allowing Gregor Blanco's superior glove to be utilized in center?)
Church's splits also show that he's itching to get out of the pitcher's haven that is Citi Field: he's hit .326/.359/.444 away, compared to just .216/.297/.278 at home. Put in a platoon, and rescued from the Mets' home park, he could be an .800 OPS player, which would be a huge boost for our lineup.
To address the second point about the risk that Frenchy figures something out and comes back to haunt us, I would say this: even if there is a magic formula that will "fix" Jeff Francoeur, he isn't going to find it in Atlanta. He already tried visiting the Texas Rangers clubhouse for help; clearly the Braves' coaches and players have done all they can do to help Jeff. So if he does find his stroke in the Big Apple, it's imperative that we remember that he might never have found it had he stayed in Atlanta. So maybe he does turn his career around, but it's not like the Braves could have given him what he needed to make that happen.
Finally, there's the obvious salient point here, which is that the chances of Francoeur learning the necessary plate discipline in order to be a big-league regular are slim and none. It's very, very difficult to learn that skill in the majors (since he never had any in the minors either, that's for sure), and with his arbitration clock ticking toward free agency and expensive arbitration, it simply wasn't worth the effort for the tiny chance that he rediscovers his lost stardom. Effectively Frank Wren traded a hint of upside for a sizable dose of certainty, and provided the Braves employ Church the right way, this deal is an unequivocal win for the Braves.