“Atlanta Braves – Purchased the contract of right fielder Jeff Francoeur from Triple-A Gwinnett.” That will be the simple one line statement buried deep in your local newspaper’s sports section today. Even the most die-hard fans would have been hard pressed to know that Francoeur was in camp with the Braves this spring and only super baseball fans actually take the time to read each and every daily transaction. However, the story of Jeff Francoeur goes much deeper than a single byline that 99.9 percent of America will never read.
After almost seven years, six major league teams, a trip to the World Series, nearly a full season at Triple-A, and a new outlook on baseball, Francoeur is back where it all began. Yesterday the team formally announced they had purchased the contract of their one-time can’t miss prospect. Jeff Francoeur will be in uniform for the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2016, when the Braves take on the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. To borrow a few words from the Grateful Dead, “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been.”
By now you surely know his story; Georgia high school legend in baseball and football, first-round pick by the Braves, bursting onto the scene as a 21 year-old and a cover of Sports Illustrated proclaiming him as “The Natural” just for good measure. But a funny thing happened along the way to Cooperstown. Baseball happened. The game of baseball can humble even the greatest of stars, let alone a 21-year-old with the weight of an entire city and franchise on his shoulders.
Less than four years after making his Braves debut, Francoeur was struggling mightily and his star that was once so bright, had now faded to a mere glimmer. “Frenchy,” as he is affectionately called, was traded to the hated New York Mets for journeyman Ryan Church. After parts of two years with the Mets, Francoeur was traded to the Texas Rangers who were searching for a defensive outfielder for their eventual trip to the World Series. Then a reunion with former Braves assistant general manager and current Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore. The bottom began to fall out for Francoeur in 2012 and Kansas City released him in the middle of the 2013 season, his baseball future was very much in doubt. The San Francisco Giants took a shot on Francoeur later in the year, leading to a 24-game failed experiment by the Bay.
During the 2013 offseason Francoeur garnered exactly zero major league contract offers and it seemed the end was near. Willing to give it one last shot, Francoeur signed a minor league deal with the San Diego Padres in early 2014. The Padres were a team devoid of outfielders that year, surely if he couldn’t make it to the big-league roster with the Padres it was time to hang up the spikes. Francoeur shuttled off to El Paso, TX to suit up for the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate the El Paso Chihuahuas. He was 1,400 miles from home, and it had to seem like he was even farther from ever putting on a major league uniform again. Francoeur was called up late in the season for a 10-game stint with the Padres which he batted .083 and the 2014 offseason was looking even bleaker.
The phone rang from the Philadelphia Phillies in early 2015 and they were willing to give Francoeur a shot to make their team as an extra outfielder and he jumped at the opportunity. Somewhere along the way during Phillies spring training in Clearwater, FL a switch had been flipped. Gone was all the pressure bearing down on him, the long bus rides from El Paso, and the countless hitting coaches chirping in his ear. Always a well-liked member of the clubhouse, Frenchy embraced his new role as veteran presence and part-time player off the bench and carved out a very respectable .258 average over 343 at-bats.
Faced with yet another offseason of uncertainty, there weren’t any teams offering Francoeur a major league contract as the calendar turned to 2016. At peace with his career, and unwilling to go to the minors it appeared his career was over. As fate would have it, Atlanta Braves came calling for one last chance to continue every kids dream. The Braves offered him a minor league invite with the understanding he would either be released or make the Opening Day roster. Armed with a vastly different outlook than the last time he donned a Braves uniform, Francoeur has batted over .300 this spring and secured a position on the 25-man Opening Day roster.
There will likely be no Sports Illustrated covers this time around and that is just fine by him. Francoeur will be playing the game he loves, for the team he loves, in front of family and fans that love him back. Life, just as the game of baseball, does not always pan out as we expect but often the journey can be just as satisfying as the destination.