Julio Franco never wanted to leave the Atlanta Braves, but when the New York Mets shoved a two-year offer at him two winters ago he couldn't resist leaving for the big city.
But now, Julio is coming home.
Franco signed a contract with the Braves Wednesday for the rest of the season. He'll be in uniform tonight and knowing Manager Bobby Cox you can assume Franco will be in the lineup at first base against the St. Louis Cardinals tonight and lefty starter Mike Maroth.
The veteran Franco will turn 49 (at least) next month. He hit only .200 this year with the Mets before they designated him for assignment last week. Does the popular Franco have any gas left in his tank?
Well this might simply come down to how Cox uses Franco. He's already got a platoon in place, or some sort of situation, at first base with lefty hitting Scott Thorman and switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Even though 'Salty' has started the last two games against right-handed pitchers, you wonder if Cox will not ease Franco into this picture.
In my mind, that would be a mistake. Franco is 21 months older than the last time he donned a Braves' uniform. His bat speed has slowed down a bit, so the thought of him getting a couple of starts a week is not comforting right now.
But if Cox simply uses Franco as the main right-handed bat of the Atlanta bench, we could see the old man be productive for this team. He was 7-for-26 (.265) this season as a pinch-hitter, which was not bad. And in his last three seasons with the Braves, Franco hit .302 off the bench.
There is no doubt that Franco will help in the clubhouse. He's been sorely missed, especially for the Latin American players. And the younger players truly revere Franco, with his work ethic being a sincere example of how you must work everyday to be a productive player.
That clubhouse influence was brushed aside Wednesday by Mets' Manager Willie Randolph and several of Franco's ex-teammates. But the fact is Franco was never happy in New York, and perhaps that unhappiness transferred over into his influence on that roster.
Franco loves Bobby Cox and loves wearing that Braves' uniform, and if that does matter, he will help this team. Of course, if his age has simply caught up with him and he's just no longer able to get that bat speed working for him, then we'll have to see how long the Braves will stick with Franco.
But there's a chance that if that happens, if Franco shows he can no longer be produtive, he'll simply step away. Yes, he wants to play until he's 50, but he's not going to hurt this franchise by taking up a roster spot if he can no longer hit.
With the Braves and Mets so closely matched up, separated by only two and a half games, an intangible might make the difference. Let's see how Franco helps this Braves' clubhouse, which is in need of another veteran.
The risk is so low, which makes it worthwhile to see if it will help. The Braves will only pay him about $150,000 for the rest of the season. If Franco can give this club a big hit or two off the bench and also help in that clubhouse, it will be well worth bringing him back home to Atlanta.
But it's up to Cox. If he takes at-bats away from Saltalamacchia and gives them to Franco, he may get burned. So let's hope Franco simply helps the Atlanta bench, which with the exception of Matt Diaz (.444), needs some help in the worst way.
And for $150 grand, what the heck. Let's see if Julio can help the club that's trying to beat the team he just left.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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