Results tagged ‘ Jeff Francoeur ’

Will daunting stretch be the turnaround point?

As the Braves prepare for this 13-game stretch that will pit them against the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies, we can either focus on the tone of “Taps” or take the optimistic approach by taking the belief that this will be the two-week stretch that will turn the whole season around. 

While taking two of three against the Yankees this week, the Nationals provided hope or  at least made Herm Edwards proud by proving that “you play to win the game.”

With their starting rotation, the Braves will at least enter this stretch with the confidence that they’ll have at least be in every game that is played.  But as Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez will be the first to attest, mound dominance will only lead to utter frustration when backed by an offense that has habitually provided minimal support. 

But we’re going to keep things positive and take the assumption that Thursday’s seven-run uprising in Cincinnati was a sign of things to come for Bobby Cox’s offense.  With his four-RBI performance, Nate McLouth showed what he could do at the top of the lineup and at the same time provided himself more reason to feel comfortable within his new enviroment. 

In addition, we were reminded that things seem to click when Martin Prado and Matt Diaz are in the lineup.  Unfortunately the Braves are scheduled to face right-handed starters during each of their next five games and thus we may find ourselves watching much more of Garret Anderson and Kelly Johnson than Diaz and Prado. 

The Braves are 14-11 in the games that Prado has started and 15-13 in the games started by Diaz.  They are 14-10 in games against a left-handed starting pitcher and 17-24 in games during which the opponents starts a right-hander.

During Thursday’s win, Diaz certainly made an impressive bid to earn more time in left field.  His fourth-inning solo homer provided cushion and his sixth-inning leadoff double led to a three-run inning that allowed Tommy Hanson to cruise toward his second straight win. 

But Diaz’s bid to earn more playing time was most significantly enhanced with his fifth-inning diving grab in left-center field with one out and runners on first and second base.  If Anderson had been in left field, that ball gets to the wall, at least one run scores and there’s no guarantee that Hanson would have been able to once again wiggle out of the ensuing jam.

While finding himself in a platoon, Anderson certainly hasn’t provided the offensive production the Braves envisioned.    In 108 at-bats against right-handers, he has hit .231 with a .612 OPS.   In 43 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, he has hit .326 with a .774 OPS. 

Then of course, while hitting .238 with a .670 OPS in June, Anderson hasn’t recently found consistent success against anybody.  At the same time, 2ith a .267 batting average and .746 OPS this month, Diaz hasn’t exactly set the word on fire.

But with his defense and further proof that he is capable of finding equal success against right-handers and left-handers,  Diaz at least provided further reason to argue that he should be seeing more time in left field.

In 60 at-bats against right-handed pitchers this year, Diaz has hit .267 with a .777 OPS.  In 58 at-bats against lefties, he has hit .293 with an .812 OPS. 

Prado’s case: While hitting .306 (15-for-49) against lefties and .238 (15-for-63) against righties, Prado has made it a little harder to argue that he should be seeing more time at second base. 

But his argument proves to be much stronger when you account for the fact that Johnson has hit .148 with an abysmal .402 OPS in 14 games this month.  If a bigger sample size is needed, Johnson has hit .216 with a .630 OPS in his past 27 games. 

Statistically, Johnson has once again proven that he doesn’t necessarily benefit from the platoon that puts him in the lineup against right-handers.   He is hitting .196 with a .569 OPS in 148 at-bats against righties and .303 with a .948 OPS in 66 at-bats against lefties.

Weekend prediction:  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this will be a productive weekend for Jeff Francoeur.  Playing in front of his Boston-area relatives, Frenchy is once again going to prove that he’s one of those guys who can rise to the occasion.  During his only previous three-game series at Fenway Park, he had eight hits, including a double and a homer, in 15 at-bats.

Lowe’s blog is live:  On Saturday, Derek Lowe will be making his first start in Boston since helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series.  He talks about some of those memories in the first installment of his new blog.    

Cincy has become a nightmare destination

After Tuesday night’s 7-2 loss to the Reds, Braves manager Bobby Cox essentially said that if you record 12 hits, you’ve got to win.   But since Great American Ball Park started to become his team’s house of horrors two years ago, Cox has come to realize this isn’t necessarily true.
  
While winning just two of the past 10 games they’ve played at GABP dating back to Aug. 21, 2007, the Braves have won just one of the six games during which they’ve recorded a  double-digit hit total. Their other win during this span occurred on April 24, when they tallied four hits, the first of which came courtesy of  Jeff Francoeur’s  two-out, fifth-inning homer.
 
So much has occurred over the course of these 10 games that it’s hard to pinpoint why Cincinnati has recently caused Cox more heartburn than Skyline Chili.   This skid started with Jo-Jo Reyes blowing a three-run second-inning lead by allowing the Reds to produce a five-run third-inning.
 
One day later, Edgar Renteria came off the disabled list and then went right back on it before even having the opportunity to do anything more than check his swing during his first-inning at-bat.   Then to cap off that three-game stretch in August of 2007, Adam Dunn continued his assault of Bob Wickman with a 12th-inning, walk-off homer.
 
Given that Wickman was released the following day, I guess you can say something good has come out of this 10-game stretch, during which the Braves have competed against the Bengals for the right to be considered the least successful team in Cincinnati.
 
Looking back at last night’s game, things might have certainly been different had Francoeur not grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the sixth.
  
But things like this are going to happen.  Former American League MVP Justin Morneau has grounded into 16 double plays (third-most in the Majors) during the 240 at-bats he’s compiled with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2008 season.   But he’s also compiled a .350 batting average and collected 130 RBIs in these situations.
 
The frustration that stemmed from Tuesday’s sixth-inning has to do with the fact that these situations seem to always find Francoeur.   The 250 at-bats he’s had w/ RISP since the start of 2008 ranks as the fourth-highest total in the Majors  —  a distinction that is partly  product of the fact that his aggressive nature limits his walk total and consequently increases his at-bats total.
 
If completely ignoring the big picture by solely looking at this from an RBI perspective, you would be able to say that Francoeur compares to Alex Rodriguez.  In 285 plate appearances w/ RISP since the start of 2008, Francoeur has tallied 85 RBIs, which is just one shy of the mark A-Rod has collected in 274 plate appearances.
 
But upon exiting the delusional world, it’s obvious that A-Rod has proven more productive while hitting .262 with a .403 on-base percentage and .463 slugging percentage during this span.
 
Those numbers don’t seemingly scream $59 million (A-Rod’s combined salaries in 2008 and 2009) worth of production, but they’re certainly more impressive than the ones posted by Francoeur, who has hit .216 with a .284 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage w/ RISP since the start of last season. 
 
Among the 14 Major Leaguers who have had at least 275 plate appearances w/RISP  since the start of last season, Francoeur and Rockies third baseman Garret Atkins (.226) are the only ones who haven’t hit at least .250 or compiled a .300 on-base percentage.

Among the 46 players who have had at least 250 plate appearances w/RISP since the start of last season, Francoeur’s .316 slugging percentage ranks dead last.  Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano’s .371 mark ranks as the second-worst.
 
Now re-entering the optimistic world and taking the approach that you’re only as good as your last at-bat, we’ll say Francoeur took a step in the right direction while scoring Chipper Jones from third base with his eighth-inning single on Tuesday night.
 
Unfortunately for the Braves, that single, which brought them within a run, only served as a tease.  Jones’ throwing error helped the Reds tally four unearned runs in the bottom of the eighth against Mike Gonzalez, who had allowed six hits while holding opponents scoreless over his previous nine innings.
 
This was another instance where Gonzalez encountered struggles during a non-save situation.  Just four of the 13 runs  he’s surrendered this year have come in save situations.  Five of the nine runs he’s allowed in non-save situations have been unearned. 

In 14 save situations, Gonzalez has limited opponents to a .200 batting average and .302 on-base percentage.  In his 17 appearances without a save on the line, he has allowed a .270 batting average and .378 on-base percentage. 
 
Yankees and Red Sox tickets:
  Tickets remain for next week’s games against the Red Sox (June 23-35) and Yankees (June 26-28).   While purchasing these at braves.com, you can also buy a daily parking pass that will admit you to one of the team’s lots.  Fans without these passes or season permits will have to find other parking options or utilize MARTA.

Back to life and back to reality

Nate McLouth provided an immediate upgrade and he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an asset to the Braves over the course of the next few years.  But as we’ve seen through the first week of his career in Atlanta, his five-tool talents aren’t great enough to serve as the solution to his new team’s offensive woes. 

When the Braves were shutout during the first two games of the McLouth era, they opted to move their new center fielder into the leadoff spot and magically they found themselves scoring 19 runs during a three-game span that began on Sunday.

But stealing a line from the old Soul II Soul song, the final two games of the Pirates series brought the Braves back to life and back to reality..
 
When the Braves prevented Tommy Hanson from losing his debut on Sunday, they (or Chipper Jones specifically) took advantage of Manny Parra, who has an 11.90 ERA in his past four starts,  and an over-taxed Brewers bullpen.
   
The majority of Monday’s seven-run uprising came at the expense of Zach Duke, who was charged with six runs and 11 hits in six innings.  But this was nothing new for the Braves.  Back in April, when Brian McCann couldn’t see, they actually pounded the left-hander with 12 hits and six runs in six innings.
 
Then Wednesday night, they botched the opportunity that was provided when Charlie Morton’s early exit prompted the impromptu entrance of Jeff Karstens, who had suffered the loss during  Monday’s 15-inning marathon with an 18-pitch outing.
 
With a quick rebound, Karstens allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings and set the stage for Paul Maholm, who allowed one unearned run over seven innings on Thursday afternoon.  Maholm till hasn’t surrendered an earned run in the 14 innings he’s tossed against Atlanta this year.
 
“I thought Maholm pitched another great game, but, we’re saying that too much in here,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. 

Chipper Jones said that Thursday was actually a day when the Braves justifiably had to tip their caps to Maholm.
 
While respecting Jones’ opinion, I’m sticking with Cox and holding the belief that Mike Hampton likely would have already damaged his wrist if he had to tip his hat as frequently as the Braves hitters have this year. 

While hitting .224 on this recently-completed nine-game homestand, the Braves were limited to two runs or fewer five times.  Making matters worse is that they went winless in the four games that their starters allowed two runs or fewer. 

Over the course of the past nine games, the Braves starters allowed 26 earned runs and posted a 3.90 ERA.  Take away Tommy Hanson’s debut and that ERA drops to 3.33. Regardless, either way you look at it, this span should have included more than four wins.

While the Braves were able to at least enhance their feeble outfield production with the acquisition of McLouth, they’ll need to do much more to make the necessary improvements to a lineup that still relies too heavily on the production of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. 

” If (Brian McCann) isn’t playing and I go O-fer, we’re in trouble,” Jones said. “If I’m not playing and Mac goes O-fer, we’re in trouble.”  

While there was no doubt that this lineup would be centered around Jones and McCann, the Braves obviously were counting on more from Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, whose fourth-inning single on Thursday provided him just his fourth hit in his past 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
 
Anderson is who he’s always been minus the power that he displayed during the early years of this decade.   When they signed him, the Braves knew about the fact that he’s a far from vibrant personality.  But it’s safe to say that they envisioned him hitting better than .254 with a .373 slugging percentage through his first 40 games.
 
Anderson’s struggles have only magnified those of Francoeur, whose .621 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is actually 32 points lower than the mark he produced during last year’s disappointing campaign. 

Courtesy of the disappointing statistics he’s produced over the past two years, Francoeur has been forced to face the reality that he’s subject to regular criticism. 

While being one of the many who have been critical of his production, I would certainly never question Francoeur’s determination and passion for the game. He’s still the same great kid that arrived on the scene four years ago. But he’s currently not the same great player we had envisioned. 

As things currently stand, it’s tough to envision Francouer being back with the Braves beyond this season.  But at the same time, it’s not like Frank Wren is going to his team’s outfield woes by trading him.

While there’s still a chance that the Braves could deal Francoeur at some point this season, they certainly aren’t going to do so until they have somebody capable of filling the right field position.
 
Thoughts of Matt Diaz playing right field every day are erased by the reality that Anderson isn’t capable of playing left field on an everyday basis.  Plus with Jordan Schafer and Brandon Jones currently ailing, I don’t see any other internal options developing any time soon. 

So with limited available funds, the Braves will continue to evaluate the trade market with the hope that it produces a solution before it’s too late. 

To get the return that they are seeking, they will have to supply something significant.  While dealing Javier Vazquez would provide the opportunity to gain some financial breathing room, the Braves may be reluctant to deal him before having a better feel about what they could expect from Tim Hudson during the season’s final two months and next year. 

Without a suitable replacement, it’s also tough to envision trading Yunel Escobar.  But for every sensational contribution the shortstop provides, he seems to further bother his teammates by habitually committing mental mistakes and displaying the flashy personality that infuriates opponents and umpires.    

Wren’s task isn’t an easy one.  But as it becomes harder for him to watch his anemic offense there’s certainly reason to believe he’ll be further motivated to improve it.      

Medlen ready to conquer nerves?

Obviously the biggest question going into tonight’s game against the Giants centers around Kris Medlen and his ability to overcome whatever demons haunted him during the fourth inning of his big league debut last week. 
Because he pitched effectively during the first three innings of last Thursday’s game against the Rockies, I didn’t initially buy into the notion that it was solely nerves that caused him to miss the strike zone with 15 of his 18 fourth-inning pitches.
But I certainly can’t discount the likelihood that all of his nervous energy started working in a negative manner once he threw his first wayward pitch during that forgettable fourth inning.  
From what I have gathered from those who have had the opportunity to watch him rise through the Minor League ranks, Medlen is a pitcher who has always been able to utilize his energetic personality to his advantage.   At the same time, he’s occasionally experienced outings where he suddenly struggles with his control and then regains it a short time later.
The Braves can only hope that Medlen is able to channel his great sense of energy when he once again encounters the expected nerves that will be present tonight, when he faces the challenge of outdueling Tim Lincecum. 
Given that the Blue Jays were leading the Majors in a number of statistical categories, I’d argue that Medlen’s challenge against Lincecum is actually less significant than the one Kenshin Kawakami conquered during last week’s duel against Toronto ace Roy Halladay. 
Medlen likely isn’t going to match the dominance that Kawakami showed with his eight scoreless innings against the Blue Jays last week. 
In fact, fading away from the topic for just a second to admit that my timing was great last Friday afternoon, when I said the Braves will regret the Kawakami signing through the end of the 2011 season, I will say that Kawakami’s effort was the second-best provided by a Braves pitcher this year, trailing only the Opening Day dominance that Derek Lowe showed in Philadelphia. 
But (getting back to the original topic) Medlen says that he’s “super pumped” about tonight’s matchup and he expressed this with more than words.  In fact, once he got done moving his hands in countless directions while talking about tonight’s matchup, I walked away wondering if I was supposed to bunt or hit-and-run.
Francoeur provided opportunity:  When Garret Anderson and Brian McCann returned to the lineup, Jeff Francoeur wasn’t happy about the fact that he was primarily hitting seventh, where he says pitchers were less apt to pitch to him because he had Jordan Schafer and the pitcher’s spot sitting behind him. 
With Chipper Jones and Yunel Escobar out of the lineup on Saturday, Francoeur moved up to the sixth spot and responded with a three-hit performance that included four solid at-bats. 
But with Jones, Escobar and Anderson out of Monday afternoon’s lineup, Francoeur didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to show his run-producing skills.   While going hitless in four at-bats, he didn’t advance any of the seven runners who were on base when he came to the plate. 
The frustration he felt while striking out with the bases loaded and nobody out in the sixth inning increased during the eighth inning, when he again recorded the first out with runners at first and second base. 
During the early weeks of this season, when it didn’t make much sense to evaluate batting averages, the reason to be encouraged about Francoeur stemmed from the fact that he had eight hits in his first 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position.  
But he has just five hits in his last 35 at-bats with runners in scoring position.   His three-run homer against Mike Hampton on May 1 accounted for the only extra-base hit and three of the nine RBIs he’s compiled during this span.
The Braves will continue to shop Francoeur with the hope of getting some substance in return.  But dealing him isn’t going to solve all of their offensive outfield woes. 
While the corner outfield positions aren’t providing any power, Jordan Schafer has essentially done nothing but spend the past seven weeks providing a solid glove.   In his past 39 games, Schafer has hit .173 with a .298 on-base percentage and 51 strikeouts. 
Schafer’s strikeout total ranks as the fourth-highest in the Majors and comes with the contribution of two homers, which were both provided during the season’s first three games.    Each of the three players with more strikeouts this year   —  Texas’s Chris Davis, Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena and Arizona’s Mark Reynolds  —   have all hit at least 10 homers. 
Looking at internal options, the Braves could give Brandon Jones a chance to play right field.  Jones is hitting .315 with Triple-A Gwinnett.  But he still hasn’t homered in 111 at-bats and from a defensive perspective, he would have to be considered a downgrade in comparison to Francoeur, who can still affect a game with his arm. 
As for the internal center field options, they are limited to Gregor Blanco, Brian Barton and Reid Gorecki  and none of these players provide the Braves much reason to be confident about their ability to fare much better than Schafer. 
But from a developmental standpoint, the Braves have to at least wonder if Schafer’s bright future will become clouded if he continues to provide consistent indication that he’s overmatched at the Major League level. 
Braves general manager Frank Wren has assembled a pitching staff that could take his team into October.  But he currently faces the great challenge of finding a way to minimize some of the same outfield concerns that were present last year.

 

Braves need to make changes to outfield mix

Braves general manager Frank Wren isn’t in a position where he can wait until the July 31 trade deadline to upgrade his powerless outfield mix.    There’s a need for immediate changes and also indication that we’ll begin to see it in the near future.  
But now that we’ve completed the easy part by stating the obvious, what is the best way for Wren to improve an outfield that ranks last in the National League in slugging percentage (.356), homers (7) and OPS (.674)?
In dire need to hear something positive?  Well there are three NL teams, whose outfield mixes have produced a worse batting average (.248) and on-base percentage (.318).
Given that he’s played just 12 games since returning from a disabled list stint that was preceded with long stretches of injury-related activity, maybe it’s unfair to already declare the Garret Anderson project to be a bust, unless of course you want to factor in the defensive element that is sorely affected by his limited range.
But is it unfair to ask for at least one home run through the 71 at-bats compiled by a left fielder that you solely acquired to add some pop to your lineup?  If so, then you’re probably arguing that you shouldn’t have expected to see longball regularity from a 36-year-old veteran who hadn’t hit more than 17 homers any of the previous five seasons.  
With this being said, is it unfair to at least expect more than two extra-base hits (two doubles) in the 46 at-bats that Anderson has totaled since returning from the DL?  In the 12 games that he’s played since being activated, he’s hit .283 with a .321 on-base percentage and .326 slugging percentage.  
Those are numbers that only look good when compared to the .197 batting average, .214 on-base percentage and .273 slugging percentage that Jeff Francoeur has compiled in the 66 at-bats that he’s tallied this month.  
While there are a number of players that are going to experience bad months, Francoeur isn’t in position where he can produce these kinds of numbers and expect to  remain in Atlanta much longer.  Earlier this week, I pointed out that the biggest difference between this year and last year for the 25-year-old outfielder is the $2.92 million raise that he gained while avoiding arbitration in February.
During his first three full Major League seasons, Francoeur has collected an average of 630 at-bats.    Using this as a variable, let’s look at the fact that he’s hit .235 with  11 homers, a .287 on-base percentage and  a .341 slugging percentage in his last 631 at-bats   — dating back to May 6, 2008.
Among every Major Leaguer player who has collected at least 500 plate appearances during this span,  Bobby Crosby, Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras,  Chone Figgins and Jason Kendall are the only ones who have compiled a lower slugging percentage.  
Francoeur’s .287 on-base percentage during this span ranks dead last, just ahead of the .288 mark compiled by Arizona’s Chris Young, whose contract calls for him to make $23.75 million from 2010-2012.
Using this as a comparison and blinding yourself from the fact that Young has recorded 15 more stolen bases than Francoeur’s zero during this span, maybe the Braves shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that they’re paying Francoeur $3.325 million this year.  
At the ripe age of 25, Francoeur might one day regain the power that has been absent since his 29-homer, 2006 season.  But as they continue to patiently await the return of this power, the Braves find themselves in a position where they have to at least explore the option of trading him to a team that believes they can fix him.
Obviously, Francoeur enjoys working with Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.  So maybe Jaramillo could persuade Jon Daniels to roll the dice with another ex-Braves player.  Sill while the Andruw Jones project is currently working, Texas is loaded with outfielders and many other top prospects  who were once destined for Atlanta.
The Braves aren’t going to get much in return for Francoeur. But they need to at least explore the possibility of moving him before they reach a point during the offseason, when they might non-tender him and get absolutely nothing in return for a former top prospect, who was once-considered to be the next Chipper Jones.
In addition, while attempting to alter their outfield mix, the Braves to face the reality that Francoeur still might generate a greater return than Anderson would on the trade market.  
Jordan Schafer’s rookie struggles have played a part in the lack of offense the Braves outfield has generated this year.  But while playing the field this year, the  only Atlanta outfielder to better the .660 OPS generated by Schafer is Matt Diaz with a .766 mark.  
With Diaz and Brandon Jones, the Braves have a couple of internal pieces who could at least attempt to improve the corner outfield production.  But to truly make a difference Wren is going to have to look outside his organization and navigate a trade market with funds that were reduced by the questionable signings of Anderson and Kenshin Kawakami.
Kawakami’s three-year, $23 million contract will continue to haunt Wren through the end of the 2011 season. The immediate effects have already proven to be a hindrance.  
How nice would it have been to have had an extra $7 milllion to spend on an outfielder right now or back in February,  when the Angels  avoided re-signing Anderson and opted to give Bobby Abreu  one-year $5 million?
Without a homer in his first 140 at-bats this year, Abreu wasn’t going to bring the Braves the power that they need.  But his .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .364 slugging percentage certainly look much better than the marks compiled by Anderson or anybody else the Braves have utilized as an outfielder this year.

Time for Francoeur to find a groove

Those of you who said that Tom Glavine wouldn’t step on the Turner Field mound this year need to head to the ATM or at least examine the fine print of your friendly wagers.   From what I could tell, he had no trouble standing on that mound while completing three innings and dodging a Greg Norton liner during Monday afternoon’s simulated game.  

As long as his left shoulder is still cooperating, Glavine is still planning to make a Minor League rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday.  In other words, the simulated game went as well as could be expected, minus the Norton liner that bruised the 43-year-old left-hander’s left hip.  

When Norton walked through the clubhouse and said he was sorry, Glavine said, “It’s better that you hit it off my leg, instead of into the seats.”

Never afraid to make himself the punchline of a one-liner, Norton said, “If I was fast enough,  I’d have run and caught that ball before it hit him.”

The soft liner didn’t seem to affect Glavine’s delivery or sense of humor.  

“I told Norton that I’ve gotten hit a lot harder with slap shots,” Glavine said in reference to his hockey background.  

Based on the comments posted today, your primary interest isn’t centered around the 43-year-old left-hander, who  won’t  be in position to pitch in a Major League game until the first week of June.  Instead, most of your attention seems to be focused on that 25-year-old right fielder who finds his current statistics eerily similar to the ones he produced at this time last year.  

When Francoeur homered on the first pitch that he saw, there was reason to believe that this year might be different than the last.  But 509 pitches and two homers later, the most significant difference is the $2.92 million raise he gained after producing career lows in batting average (.239) homers (11) and OPS (.653)  last year.   <p>

Through his first 36 games this year, Francoeur has hit .252 with three homers  a .272 on-base percentage, a .371 slugging percentage and a .642 OPS   —  fourth-worst among the 40 qualified National League outfielders.

His numbers through his first 36 games last year included a .262 batting average,  three homers, a .310 OBP, a .421 SLG and a .721 OPS.  

With less than 80 percent of the season complete, we haven’t reached a point where we can justifiably say that Francoeur is destined to repeat last year’s disappointments.   But his current trend is pointing him in that direction.  

During his first 18 games this year, Francoeur hit .292 with a .320 OBP, a .458 SLG and a .778 OPS.  In the 18 games that have followed, he’s hit .211 with a .224 OBP, .282 SLG and .505 OPS.

One of the most encouraging things about Francoeur’s start came from the fact that he recorded eight hits and 10 RBIS in his first 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position.  But he’s  had just four hits and seven RBIs in his past 26 at-bats with RISP.  

Still lost within the .279 batting average Francoeur has produced with runners in scoring position is the fact that he’s recorded three hits and produced four RBIs in six plate appearances with two outs and a runner on third base.  

In addition, simply looking at his outfield assists total isn’t going to show how many runs he saved based on the fact that runners are less apt to attempt to score or take an extra base against his arm.  

But while agreeing the statistics don’t tell the whole story about a player’s value, you can’t ignore that Francoeur’s $3.375 million salary has put him in a position where he needs to turn things around before the Braves reach the point where they deem that his cost outweighs his value.  

The Braves were reluctant to give Francoeur this salary in February and they certainly aren’t going to want to provide him an even greater arbitration-generated salary next year, if he isn’t able to end the trend that is pointing him in the same direction that he traveled in 2008.  

But it’s still too early to talk about the possibility of the Braves trading or non-tendering Francoeur.   Right now, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying that his current three-week slump is just a product of the fact that he was bound to encounter struggles after completely altering his swing and stance during the offseason.  

With this being said, the business aspect that made Francoeur a millionaire is the same one that will lead the Braves to be much less patient than they were when they stuck with him throughout last year’s struggles.

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Frenchy rests during series finale

It’s been kind of a hectic morning.  So we’ll keep this short by informing you that Jeff Francoeur is getting a day off and Tom Glavine was once again pleased with the bullpen session that he completed this morning. 

Francoeur has hit .213 with a .204 on-base percentage and .255 slugging percentage in his past 11 games.   Braves manager Bobby Cox said that he wanted his right-fielder to rest during the series finale against the Mets and then take advantage to gain further rest during the team’s scheduled offday on Thursday.

With Francoeur out of the lineup for the first time this year, Matt Diaz will start in right field for the first time since he joined the Braves in 2006.  In fact, this marked just the third time in his career that he’s started in right field.

Diaz’s most recent start in right field occurred on Sept. 27, 2005.  While playing for the Royals against the Twins that day, he recorded two hits, including a seventh-inning leadoff homer, against Johan Santana.

Glavine felt good about about the 35-pitch bullpen session that he completed this morning.   He’ll likely throw a simulated game at Turner Field early next week and then prepare for at least one Minor League rehab assignment.  The 43-year-old left-hander is still aiming to return to the Atlanta rotation before the end of this month.   

Braves prepping for Citi Field introduction

New ballpark.  Same old rivalry.

Say what you want about the cats and rats that existed at old dingy Shea Stadium.  But you can’t deny the fact that there was almost always a great sense of excitement whenever the Braves traveled to play there over the course of the past decade. 

Whether it was a creation of John Rocker’s pot stirring or just a sense of jealousy that developed during Atlanta’s run of consecutive division titles, there’s no doubt that Mets fans have grown to love to hate the Braves.

The most obvious love-hate relationship is shared by Chipper Jones and those Mets fans who have always showered him with chants of “Lah-REE”.   You can bet that those same mocking references to his given name will be heard at Citi Field.

But for now, we can only hope that the modernized stadium in Queens creates the same type of hostile atmosphere that was present in Shea.  There’s just something great about those moments when fans truly raise the game’s energy level. 

Since the Braves moved into their modernized digs at Turner Field, there have been numerous moments when the fans have caused goose-bump-type atmospheres.  But as many of you will attest, those moments occurred much more frequently during the early 1990s at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Much of that had to do with the sudden sucees enjoyed by a previously pitiful Braves organization.  But there’s also reason to wonder if the new stadium’s environment set the tone for a more tranquil atmostphere. 

Whatever the case, Jones is hoping that Citi Field presents the same blue collar atmosphere as its predecessor.

It would be nice to see Jones’ sore right elbow prove to be healthy enough for him to be in the lineup for tonight’s series opener against the first-place Mets.  We’ve got a nationally-televised game featuring a pair of aces (Derek Lowe and Johan Santana) who will both be attempting to prolong their respective team’s current success.

Jones’ participation would only add to the intrigue.

The primary reason the Braves have won four of their past five games stems from the fact that they’ve once again become whole with the returns of Brian McCann and Garret Anderson.  Taking Jones out of the lineup would produce the same negative effect that manager Bobby Cox encountered far too often during the season’s first month.

Still there’s no indication that Jones is battling anything serious and so if you’re looking at the big picture, it won’t be a big deal if he needs just one more day to rest the elbow that he hyper-extended with two seperate swings on Sunday. 

Winners of seven straight games, the Mets have every reason to feel good about the fact that Santana is taking the hill tonight.  Still while asserting himself as the game’s top pitcher, the veteran left-hander is still winless in five career starts against the Braves.  

During the four starts he’s made against the Braves since the start of the 2007 season, Santana is 0-2 with a 2.57 ERA.   He has worked seven innings during each of those outings and allowed as many as three runs just once. 

His most recent start against the Braves occurred on Sept. 13, when he tossed seven scoreless innings and then exited after allowing consecutive singles to begin the eighth.  Two batters later, Jeff Francoeur tied the game with one of the six hits he recored last year in 33 at-bats with the bases loaded.

The numbers tell a lot about the game.  But they don’t create the stories that develop.

Lowe set the tone

While enjoying some idle time in Philadelphia yesterday, one of the Braves coaches asked me, “what was the most important thing that happened last night?”  Thinking it might be a trick question, I initially thought about Jordan Schafer’s homer, Jeff Francoeur’s homer and Mike Gonzalez’s ability to escape the ugly ninth-inning mess that he created.

Another comical bystander said, “I think it was McCann’s monstrous first-inning homer.  That just intimidated everybody.”

But while the homers hit by Francoeur and Schafer created nice story lines, Derek Lowe’s masterful performance undoubtedly was the most important Opening Night development.  He allowed just two Phillies to reach base over the course of eight innings. SI.com’s Tom Verducci reported that no pitcher had previously allowed two baserunners or fewer while throwing at least eight innings at Citizens Bank Park.

Whether or not you want to call Lowe an ace, you can’t dispute the fact that his performance trumped any other produced by any other pitcher so far this season.   With that being said, Felix Hernandez’s effort with a bum ankle yesterday was certainly masterful. 

During Spring Training, one veteran observer told me that Hernandez was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen and that Tommy Hanson ranked right behind King Felix.  Hanson and the Triple-A Gwinnett team will get things started on Thursday morning in Charlotte.  First pitch is set for 11:15 a.m and you’ll be able to follow the game via the Gameday feature provided on Milb.com.

Enough about the future ace.  Let’s turn our attention back to Lowe, who undoubtedly set the tone for the Opening Night victory that allowed the Braves to truly enjoy yesterday’s rain-filled offday in Philly. 

If McCann hadn’t drilled his first-inning two-run homer into the second deck, there’s a chance that Lowe could have once again been undone by the emotions that had felled him during his previous two Opening Day starts. 

But straying away from the “if my aunt had a beard” line of thinking, Lowe didn’t and consequently allowed the Braves to begin the season in a near-perfect manner.   While evaluating that game, critics could only point toward the stress-filled ninth-inning that Gonzalez experienced while attempting to protect a four-run lead.

After the game, manager Bobby Cox talked to Gonzalez about the need to bounce his breaking pitches when ahead in the count.  The two singles surrendered by the left-handed closers came on sliders that were thrown during at-bats that began with first-pitch strikes.  

When pinch-hitter Eric Bruntlett fell behind with a 1-2 count and then laced a single into left field, it was impossible to forget about last year, when the Phillies claimed four of their 14 wins over the Braves in games that they were once trailing by at least three runs.

But after Chase Utley drew a five-pitch walk to bring Ryan Howard to the plate as the potential tying run, Gonzalez began pitching like he did during the 2006 season, when he successfully converted each of his 24 save opportunities, despite allowing opponents to produce a .325 on-base percentage.

With runners at first and second and the Braves holding a two-run lead, Gonzalez recorded game-ending conseuctive strikeouts of Howard and Raul Ibanez.  He utilized nine sliders (including five of six pitches to Howard) during this 12-pitch sequence and recorded both strikeouts with fastballs that registered 93 mph.

That was the best velocity we’ve seen from Gonzalez at any point this year.  But I think it’s becoming more apparent that his success will be better dictated by his control and ability to efffectively throw his breaking balls. One positive he can draw from Sunday is the fact that his slider certainly improved as the inning progressed. 

By the way, during the 2006 season with runners on first and second base, Gonzalez limited opponents to four hits in 24 plate appearances, recorded eight strikeouts and issued one walk.   There’s no doubt that he has the abilty to thrive under pressure. 

But for the sake of Cox’s blood pressure, let’s hope that some of his ninth innings prove to be a little less stressful. 

Something memorable will occur

During the final day of last year’s September series in Philadelphia, Jeff Francoeur sat in the dugout and talked about how he was looking forward to being back in that same spot to open this season. 

At the time, he specifically mentioned being here on the afternoon of April 6.  But that was before the Phillies won a World Series and prompted ESPN to choose tonight’s game as the one that will kick off Major League Baseball’s season. 

This marks the second straight year that the Braves will participate in the first game played on United States soil.  Last year in Washington, the Nationals were opening a new stadium and George Bush was present to throw the first pitch, which drew an ovation only trumped by the one elicited after Ryan Zimmerman drilled the evening’s final pitch over the left-centerfield wall.

After tonight, this long marathon will include 161 more regular season games and
there’s sure to be some pitching matchups that will create some
midseason energy.  But until you get to October, it’s hard to match the
adrenaline you feel leading into an Opening Night (Day) game. 

Something will happen tonight that you’ll remember for many years to come.    

I seriously can’t remember the second game that was played during any of the past four seasons.  But  Ihave vivid memories of each of the Opening Day contests that were played during this span.  In 2005, the Marlins ruined John Smoltz’s return to the rotation and in 2006, Tim Hudson teamed with Derek Lowe to allow the Braves and Dodgers to stage an 11-10 offensive slugfest that was decided by Ryan Langerhans’ eighth-inning solo homer.  

In 2007, Edgar Renteria hit a late-inning opposite-field homer that propelled the Braves to victory over the Phillies and then last year, Zimmerman gave Nationals fans reason to celebrate by christening the stadium with its first walk-off homer.

The Braves opened the 2007 season with a three-game sweep in Philadelphia and then, six months later, watched the Phillies celebrate the first of two consecutive division titles.

Obviously nothing will be detemined tonight, this week or even this month.  But you can be assured that something memorable will happen tonight. 

Speaking of memorable, I’m looking forward to July 17, when the Braves retire Greg Maddux’s number.  It was an absolute pleasure to watch him on the mound and a true honor to get to know him.  Analytical, hilarious, crude, competitive and humble are all appropriate descriptions.

To provide an example that his analytical skills functioned away from the mound, I’ll tell you about a day in 2003, when we were in Puerto Rico.  Chipper Jones told me that Mark DeRosa had visited a store and bought a can of dip that he was sure must have been transported on The Mayflower. 

After relaying DeRosa’s humorous line, Maddux simply looked at me and said, “It wouldn’t have been the Mayflower.  I think the Pinta or Santa Maria were the boats that would have landed down here.”

It doesn’t matter whether the Pinta or Santa Maria actually arrived in Puerto Rico.  The point is that Maddux was always thinking and while taking joy in his argumentitive skills, he always made you feel like he was that much smarter than you.  But he always did so in a very humble manner.

Maddux had a great impact on a number of pitchers, including Derek Lowe, who will make his Braves debut tonight against Brett Myers and the Phillies. 

This marks the fourth straight year the Braves have opened on the road and their only two Opening Day wins during this span came in games that were started by Lowe (2006 Dodgers) and Myers (2007 Phillies).

Will Jordan Schafer be the one who provides the lasting memory while making his Major League debut tonight?  Or will it be Francoeur, who would love to take the opportunity to show a national television audience why this year will be so much different than last year.   
 

 

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