The kid was born for this. Don't worry. He's ready.
Jeff Francoeur may only be in the big leagues (this time) for two weeks, but plan on fifteen years. The 21-year old will become the tenth rookie on the Atlanta roster today when he replaces the injured Brian Jordan.
It has been debated and discussed: when will Francoeur be ready? Should he remain in AA for the rest of the season and work on improving his plate discipline? Or should the Braves bring him up this summer to help an inconsistent offense?
Just like most of the other kids on the Atlanta roster, the decision was made due to injuries. But that's ok. A young kid doesn't really care how he gets to the major leagues, as long as he gets there. With his friends, Brian McCann, Kyle Davies, and Blaine Boyer already in Atlanta, Jeff had been itching to get up to the show. Some believed he might have been the first one to make it, and being the fourth is only going to push him more.
I first heard of Jeff when I read his name on a football-recruiting list back in the fall of 2001. Then a coach in the Braves' system asked me about him. "How good is this Francoeur kid," they asked. "I'm not sure, but he certainly is an athlete," I replied.
The day the Braves drafted him, I, like others, was in shock. How in the world could a kid that talented fall to number 24 in the first round? I really didn't even have any idea of what a heist it was.
Three days after the draft, I met Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann at Turner Field to do an interview for my television show. They were polite, obviously excited, and yet I had no clue how close these two were. I knew they knew each other, but I had no idea they were practically brothers. Wouldn't it be neat, I asked them, if you both could be in an Atlanta uniform and play together one day?
Both had dreamed of playing at Turner Field, a place they had been as fans numerous times. Both even remembered going to Fulton-County Stadium as kids. Yet now they were standing outside a venue that would hopefully one day be their place of business.
The Braves allowed me take McCann and Francoeur on the field to shoot some video. One of the tour guides from the Braves Museum took us around. I even got video of both in the Braves' clubhouse. Both were wide-eyed as they looked around. We joked about them selecting their favorite locker. Little did we know it would be a reality in three years.
The next season, 2003, I soon learned what the Braves' scouts had told me: Francoeur was special. I watched him lead the Rome Braves to the Sally League Championship. I watched him bunt in an important playoff game in Hickory and help lead his team to a come-from-behind victory. I watched him be a leader at the tender age of nineteen. I watched a player that was, without a doubt, special.
Francoeur can hit. Critics, and statheads, will harp on his on base percentage and plate discipline. But he was developing in the minor leagues, and there's little doubt he's a more patient player now than he was two years ago. He's matured, and he's a better hitter, and in two years, four years, and six years, he's going to be even better. There is no doubt in my mind that Jeff is going to be a solid middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues for years to come.
Francoeur can run. He's got tremendous instincts on the bases and speed to distract the pitcher on the mound. He's got the ability to change the game on the base paths with his running ability.
Francoeur can field. While his home runs and good hits are going to be special, he also has the ability to change the game in the field. I saw the best defensive play I've ever seen this spring when he went halfway over the fence on one of the Disney fields to steal a home run away from an opposing hitter. It was amazing. He is relentless in making sure he fields his position well, and it won't take long for him to win a game for the Braves with his glove.
Francoeur wins. Pure and simple, more than anything else, this kid is a winner. He exudes energy and enthusiasm and it rubs off on his teammates. When he's interviewed, he says things that ‘normal' 21-year-olds do not say. He's confident, but not cocky. He might come off as being cocky to his opponents, but it's a quiet confidence that helps him be the player he is. He is totally comfortable with his own ability and his potential to be a very special player for the Atlanta Braves.
It's the reason Braves' executives could not stop smiling Wednesday night. They know Jeff is the type of player that could help lead this team back to the postseason. He's that good.
Could he use some more seasoning in Mississippi? Probably. But there is not one doubt in my mind that Jeff Francoeur is going to do well in Atlanta and help this club get back to the playoffs. Is that putting too much pressure on him, a 21-year old rookie? Certainly it is. But there's also no doubt in my mind that this kid can handle it. He thrives in pressure situations, and this one is not going to be different at all.
This is nothing against Brian Jordan, although most of us hope his days in an Atlanta uniform are over. But Jeff Francoeur is going to thrive in this situation. Expect him to settle into a rotation for the outfield with Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson. You hate to see a veteran lose his spot due to an injury, but you also hate to keep a player down that could help you get back into the playoffs.
Jeff Francoeur has waited for this opportunity for many years. He believes it is his responsibility to be the leader of his hometown team. He was made for this role, and like it or not, his time is here. He might struggle from time to time, most 21-year olds do. But this team is going to be changed with the presence of Jeff Francoeur. He's just the type of player that makes a difference, and the Braves are going to be drastically different with him roaming the clubhouse as a member of their team.
Just like he did on our tour three years ago.
Bill Shanks has a new book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," that features a chapter about Jeff Francoeur. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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