Non-Tender Candidate: Jeff Francoeur

When Jeff Francoeur was traded to the Mets, I figured he would play out the season and be non-tendered.  A massive disappointment for his hometown Braves, this is a player who was one of the top 5 least valuable players in all of baseball in 2008.  At the time of the trade, he was on his way to another sub-replacement level season.  The previous 2 sentences are the main reasons why I was so befuddled by the effusive praise for the trade by the mainstream media, bloggers and my Met fan friends.  How did people not realize just how bad a player he had been for a significant period of his career?  Did the memory of a Sports Illustrated cover and a 1.21 gigawatt smile sufficiently hide the glaring warts on his game? 

Naturally, Francoeur proceeded to perform well for the Mets, posting a decent .311/.338/.498 line.  Combine production with an infectious personality and we're looking at a new fan favorite.  Of course, his plate discipline remained terrible.  He swung at a greater percentage of pitches out of the strike zone than any other Met and had the worst unintentional walk rate of his career.  Sustaining a high batting average with such awful peripherals is a tough task.  However, Francoeur has posted a BABIP in the .340 range in 2 other seasons (2005 and 2007), so who am I to say his .343 Mets BABIP is unsustainable? 

His Fangraphs WAR with the Mets was just 0.4, but that seems a little low because of a seemingly fluky -8.6 UZR in just half a season.  Another defensive measure, Plus/Minus, pegged his full season defense at +8.  Considering these 2 measures have agreed on Francoeur's defense in the past, and the questions about UZR reliability for outfielders at Citi Field, a WAR of about 1.0 seems more likely.  Extend to a full season and it's ~2.0 WAR, roughly league average.  This kind of production would be acceptable given his expected salary, but counting on that kind of performance from such an unpredictable player would be silly.

Francoeur is still under team control, meaning it is not necessary to give him anything more than a 1 year contract in order to secure his services for 2010.  Despite this, bizarre talk of an extension popped up towards the end of the season.  The supposed benefit would be to buy out the arbitration years of a budding superstar.  One problem: Mr. French hasn't shown any signs of adjusting his approach at the plate or becoming a star.  Teams buy out arbitration years of players like Brian McCann, Cole Hamels and David Wright (also known as "good players").  

Verdict: Bring him back next season but do not even think about an extension.  Small sample size infatuation is a problem with the Mets' front office (see Daniel Murphy, Omir Santos), and if you have the opportunity to go year-to-year on a question mark like Francoeur, you take it.  If arbitration* is necessary, hopefully the arbiter isn't as enamored with Frenchy's intangibles and fashion sense as most of the Mets fanbase is.  A salary of $4-5 million seems likely.  This is a player we can't easily project (although we can try), and there is a real risk he reverts to his disastrous 2006, 2008 or first half of 2009 form.  Additionally, do not pencil him in as the definitive right field starter.  Angel Pagan had an outstanding 2009 and has also earned the right to be considered for significant playing time, either as a starter or in some sort of platoon role. 

* - For a fictional look at Francoeur's arbitration hearing last offseason, check out this classic Joe Posnanski post.

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