The continuing adventures of one-time prodigy and part-time pitcher Jeff Francoeur
So much for Jeff Francoeur's scoreless innings streak. Wait, what?
Last week, I noted that Francoeur, a nine-year veteran of the majors and a former Sports Illustrated cover subject, had been serving not only as the Triple A El Paso Chihuahuas' regular rightfielder but also as an occasional mop-up reliever. Subsisting on a sinker/slider combo and topping out in the 88-89 mph range, he had yet to allow a run through four outings totaling 3 1/3 innings; he didn't even allow a hit until his fourth appearance. His luck ran out on Friday night, his fifth outing, when he served up a three-run homer to Mets farmhand Andrew Brown.
Not that it mattered in the end. Francoeur had entered the game with the Chihuahuas — the Padres' Triple A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League — trailing the Las Vegas 51s by five runs in the top of the ninth. That was actually the closest margin of any of his five appearances; the previous four had seen his team trailing by anywhere from seven to 13 runs.
Prior to this season, Francoeur had never pitched professionally — his last action on the mound had come in high school in Georgia, before being drafted in the first round by the Braves in 2002. He was a sensation when he burst upon the major league scene in 2005 (.419/.425/.802 through his first 25 games, and an SI cover story before he'd been in the bigs two months), but he's done more surviving than thriving since then, only once signing a contract longer than one season. After hitting a dismal .204/.238/.298 in 256 plate appearances for the Royals (who wound up releasing him) and Giants, the best he could do this winter was a minor league deal with the Indians. Even that didn't pan out; he was cut in late March and then signed another such deal with the Padres.
Francoeur made his first appearance on the mound on April 20 and pitched three times that week, the final one of a grueling, 28-day season-opening road trip necessitated by delays in completing the Chihuahuas' new ballpark. Last Thursday, ESPN El Paso radio host Steve Kaplowitz (on whose show I have been a weekly guest for the past five years) caught up with him to discuss his unusual attempt to become "a dual threat guy":
In retrospect, the mound move makes sense, given that arm strength was as much a calling card of Francoeur's as his notorious lack of plate discipline. He has averaged 13.9 assists per 1,200 innings as a major league rightfielder, reaching double digits every year except 2013.
Here's his game log to date:
Friday's outing gave Francoeur a 6.23 ERA, which doesn't look any more impressive than his .253/.283/.430 batting line though 166 plate appearances. To be fair, he has heated up considerably on the offensive side, hitting .344/.375/.590 with four homers in 64 plate appearances in May. That won't be enough to crack the Padres' outfield; even after last week's trade of Kyle Blanks to Oakland, their five-man crowd — Carlos Quentin, Seth Smith, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable and Chris Denorfia — requires manager Bud Black to do considerable juggling. It will probably take an injury for Francoeur to get a call-up.
At El Paso, Francoeur isn't the team's only position player-turned-pitcher. Fellow Chihuahua Jason Lane spent parts of six years (2002-07) in the majors as an outfielder, and after making a combined 12 minor league appearances on the mound from 2009-11, spent the past two seasons bouncing between the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League (where he started 34 games) and the Pacific Coast League while undertaking a full-blown conversion. At 37 years old, he's now a member of the Chihuahas' rotation, with a 4.47 ERA through eight starts.
Francour hasn't committed to pitching as fully as Lane, and for the moment, he's still in mop-and-bucket mode. As he told Kaplowitz:
"The thing is, let's be honest, if I'm not pitching, we're winning. Hopefully I don't get too many more opportunities. But when we do get blown out, I think Murph [El Paso manager Pat Murphy] knows that I wanna pitch."
That sentiment echoes what El Paso broadcaster Tim Hagerty recently told The Sporting News' Ryan Fagan about Francoeur's ability to lift the team morale: "The bus ride back from the ballpark to the hotel, all of a sudden it’s a lot of ribbing about Francoeur pitching instead of some pouty players after a loss."
Indeed, even before he began experimenting as a pitcher, Francoeur showed a willingness to take one for the team. At the start of the season, he was the subject of a weeks-long prank in which a teammate, pitcher Jorge Reyes, pretended to be deaf: