29. How good is Jeff Francoeur?

Jeff Francoeur doesn't walk very much, but he does a whole lot more to make him pretty darn good. How good might he become with more experience? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks examines that question in the continuing series on the top issues facing the Braves this winter.

Has there ever been a player that stirs up the Braves' fan base more than Jeff Francoeur? Some love him and believe he'll be the next great Braves' star, while others question his ceiling due to his statistical limitations.

It's no secret which side of this fence your trusted reporter sits on; my foot stepped on the Francoeur bandwagon the week he was drafted. But it's a fair debate, and with this team evolving, it's important to figure out just how good he might be in the future.

Let's first look at his 2006 season. Following his great rookie campaign where he hit .300, Francoeur hit .260 with 29 home runs and 103 runs batted in. The other stats that come into play when evaluating him: 132 strikeouts, only 23 walks, and a .293 on base percentage.

He had a tough month of April, hitting only .216 with 4 home runs and 14 RBI and no walks. There was even speculation that Francoeur might be sent to Triple-A, but it was really never an option. He improved to hit .280 with 6 home runs and 25 RBI in May, before falling back to a .248 average in June.

To say Francoeur was inconsistent would be fair. After a horrible average in April, then a good average in May, and then a sub par average in June, Francoeur hit .297 in July. His average then decreased to .266 in Augusta and .243 in the last month of the season, as it was obvious he wore down just a bit from playing everyday.

Critics should notice that Francoeur did get more patient at the plate as the season progressed. He didn't take a walk until May, when he had three for the month, following by four in June, only two in July, but then six walks in August, and eight in September. Now some will laugh at that type of progress, but to ignore the fact that Francoeur improved and got a little more patient the more he played would be unfair.

Is twenty-three walks anything to shout about? Of course not, but the improvement was at least promising. No one more than Francoeur knows he's got to be more patient at the plate. Walks are important, but it's also crucial for Francoeur to be more patient within the at bats, especially allowing that first pitch to go by without swinging a few more times. Even if his walks never reach great heights, Jeff's got a chance to improve simply by making the pitcher work more, so he'll in turn get better pitches to hit.

His lack of plate patience is what has many people questioning Francoeur's ceiling. But there's no reason to believe he will not continue to make improvements in that area. We've got to remember that the most important stat on Francoeur's stat sheet is 23, which is how old he'll be next season. Why wouldn't you expect a 23-year old to improve?

When Francoeur was in the minor leagues, hitting coaches talked with him about being patient. Francoeur worried about it a bit, but the Braves did not want for him to lose his aggressiveness, which is what makes him special. Francoeur's all-out approach is what makes him what he is, so the team did not press him much on the walks, believing that as he simply matured he would automatically get more patient at the plate.

You want him to be more patient, but you don't want Francoeur to lose his aggressiveness. He's a power hitter, and those power numbers are going to improve as well. It's important for there to be a balance, and that will simply come with maturity. Now that doesn't mean he's going to be as patient as J.D. Drew, but the hope is he'll simply be a more complete hitter – which will include him being more patient at the plate.

It'll be important to also remember that Francoeur's main function will be as a power hitter/run producer for the Atlanta Braves, and there's little doubt he can fill that role. Plus, fans must balance out Francoeur's inability to walk against his other attributes. He's a very clutch hitter, solid base runner, an outstanding arm in right field, and terrific instincts. Check out the entire package of the ballplayer instead of focusing on one major deficiency.

And yet his critics are going to say that, "yes he's a good player but his walks will keep him from being a great player." That may be so, in a statistical sense. If he never walks more than 40 times in a season he's going to be lambasted no matter what. And that's where you hope his youth and maturity will come into play, where he will simply improve with more experience.

While at times in the outfield he made a few bonehead plays, which sometimes looked more like fatigue than anything else, his outstanding plays were more memorable. The play Francoeur made running into the right field stands toward the end of the season was outstanding, and it's obvious now that teams that run on him will be cut down. So that part of his game is definitely above average.

Francoeur's makeup is something that has been advertised from the day he signed his pro contract. This kid is a winner, and teams search for years for this type of player to build around. While his best friend may be the better hitter, Jeff Francoeur is going to be the face of this franchise. His teammates are going to rally around him, and he's got the chance to have Chipper Jones pass the baton to him as the centerpiece of this team.

Does he need to improve? Absolutely. And it might be fair to look at Dale Murphy's numbers in his first two years as a comparison of what might happen with Francoeur. Of course, Murphy is a player Francoeur has been compared to since Paul Snyder, Atlanta's legendary scout that is now the Director of Player Personnel, walked out of his house when Francoeur was a senior in high school and said, "We just met the next Dale Murphy."

In his Murphy's first two seasons, one a full season (1978) and one cut by a few injuries (1979), he hit .247 with 44 home runs and 136 RBI in 914 at bats. In 23 fewer games and six less at bats, Francoeur has hit .271 with 43 home runs and 148 RBI. That's very, very close. Yes, Murphy did have 80 walks in those two season, compared to Francoeur's 34. But Murphy was also a year older at 22 in his first full season.

It took Murphy a few more years before he put everything together and became the Most Valuable Player in the National League. He was 26 years old in 1982, when he won his first of back-to-back MVP awards. And that brings us to the important question: How much better will Francoeur be when he's 26 years old?

When Francoeur is 26, he'll be in his sixth major league season. And it's hard to imagine him not improving in every statistical category by then. That's what his critics really need to hold onto: Francoeur's chances for improving with maturing and development. You also must remember that development does not end once you reach the major leagues.

It took Andruw Jones eight full seasons before he reached his full potential. He had averaged 32.4 home runs and 97.5 runs batted in between 1998 (when he became a full-time starter) and 2004. He was 21-27 years old in that span. And then in the last two years, as he was 28 and 29 years old, Jones has averaged 46 home runs and 128.5 RBI. So Jones definitely got better the more he matured and developed as a major leaguer.

And that's exactly what will happen with Jeff Francoeur. He might not hit 46 home runs in a season, but the Braves hope he'll simply be a more consistent, all-around player. If that happens, considering his makeup and leadership skills, the Braves could have one of the best players to ever wear their uniform.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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