NL East Rivals Swap Underachieving Right Fielders

The Deal
The Braves and the Mets, two National League East rivals, exchanged their underachieving right fielders in a one-for-one swap. Atlanta 2002 first-round pick Jeff Francouer, who attended high school in nearby Lilburn, Ga., heads to New York for 30-year-old Ryan Church. The Braves kicked in cash considerations to help even out the players’ salaries.

A lefthanded batter with average-ish hitting and power tools, Church hasn’t been the same player since sustaining two concussions last season within the span of two months. Up to the point of his second one, on May 20, 2008, Church was enjoying a career year, batting .311/.379/.534 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs in 42 games. He had joined New York in the offseason, in the trade that sent Lastings Milledge to Washington. This season, Church was batting .280/.332/.375 through 232 at-bats, with just two home runs and 22 RBIs in 67 games. He has struggled mightily at Citi Field, the Mets’ spacious new park (.216/.297/.278) and versus lefthanded pitchers (.167/.226/.188). The latter is a continuation of a career-long trend, but the former theoretically can be corrected by a change of scenery.

Even as he exits his prime seasons, Church remains a solid contributor on defense and on the basepaths. His arm is plenty strong for right field. Signed for $2.8 million this season, Church will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2010 season, a result of his not debuting in the big leagues until age 25. A product of Nevada’s surprisingly robust program, he turned pro in 2000 as the Indians’ 14th-round pick. This marks the third time he’s been traded in the past five years.

How the mighty have fallen. Francouer wowed major league organizations with his pure strength, athleticism and character in the months leading up to the 2002 draft. (He turned down a football scholarship at Clemson to sign with the Braves for $2.2 million as the 23rd overall pick.) A center fielder coming up, Francouer experienced little resistance in the minor leagues, ranking as the top prospect in the Appalachian (2002) and Carolina (2004) leagues, while finishing not far off the pace in the South Atlantic (No. 4, 2003) and Southern (No. 3, 2005) leagues on his way to Atlanta. He batted .300/.336/.549 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs in 70 games during his rookie season, propelling him to third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.

Still just 25, Francouer’s production has backed up significantly since his last good season in 2007. He batted .293/.338/.444 with 19 home runs and 105 RBIs that year, while playing in all of the Braves’ 162 games. In the season and a half since, he has slipped to .243/.290/.357 with just 16 home runs in 237 games. Never the best hitter of offspeed stuff, Francouer has tailed off despite making more contact and sporting a better walk-to-strikeout ratio in the past two years (.32-to-1) than in the three years prior (.24-to-1). He’s a plus defender in right field with an elite throwing arm, though he has shown a pronounced split versus righthanded pitchers, against whom he’s batting just .257/.298/.406 through 1,863 career plate appearances.

The Braves renewed Francoeur’s contract in both 2007 and 2008, rather than negotiate new pacts, but the two sides agreed to a one-year, $3.375 million deal this spring. He can opt for free agency following the 2011 season.

Quick Take
Upside or predictability? That’s the question facing Braves general manager Frank Wren and Omar Minaya, his Mets counterpart, in making this challenge trade. Though his ceiling is modest, Church figures to provide a predictable level of production over the next two seasons, especially if paired with a righthanded-hitting platoon mate. (They’re all keeping the position warm for top prospect Jason Heyward.) Coupled with the recent trade acquisition of Nate McLouth, the Braves have signaled loudly that they intend to compete for a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive NL. They’ve upgraded their outfield production with two broad strokes.

Francouer still possesses excess levels of athleticism, with the potential to hit 30 home runs, but he’ll need to refine his approach in order to reach his ceiling. What makes the Mets think they can be more successful in this endeavor than the Braves have been? They know the base talent is present, sure, but as sometimes happens with veteran players, a new organization can reinforce old teachings that perhaps the pupil had previously sloughed off. The proverbial change of scenery—it happens every year on the minor league free agent market.

<< Trade Central 2009