Entering the 2008 season, things were looking up for Atlanta Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur.
Francoeur was coming off a great 2007 season that featured him leading the Braves with 105 RBI and boosting his batting average from .260 in 2006 to .293 in the 2007 campaign.
He had a stellar year on defense as well in 2007, leading the National League with 19 outfield assists and winning his first Gold Glove Award. The only thing Frenchy looked to improve on was his home run total, a number that had dropped from 29 in 2006 to a respectable 19 in 2007.
However, once the season got underway, Francoeur desperately searched for improvement of any kind in his game. 2008 proved to be a nightmarish season for Atlanta's star outfielder, and it seemed as if there was nothing he could do to get back on the right track.
Francoeur managed to hit only 11 home runs, recorded a batting average of .239, and saw his RBI total drop to 71, a 34-RBI drop from the previous season. If that was not enough, Francoeur managed to record only 39 walks in a total of 599 at-bats. Granted, Frenchy has a reputation of being an aggressive hitter, but he severely lacked plate discipline during his season-long slump.
However, the event that probably sent him reeling even further was his demotion to the minor leagues—a move that rubbed Francoeur the wrong way.
The Braves optioned Francoeur to Double-A Mississippi in hopes that he would recover his swing with former hitting coach Phil Wellman. But, unfortunately, Atlanta couldn’t afford to make such a move at the time considering their problems with the injury bug.
Francoeur returned to the majors after a mere three days in the minor leagues, a move that turned out to be very beneficial for him initially. Yet, over time, Frenchy’s minor-league stint proved to be ineffective, as he finished the season mired in a slump.
As a result of Francoeur's woes, the Braves stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the NL East, posting a final record of 72-90, 20 games behind the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.
However, all of the blame cannot be placed upon Francoeur. Baseball is a team sport. The Braves had an oft-injured starting rotation last season, which resulted in an overworked bullpen and a lot of inexperience on the pitching staff.
Fortunately for Atlanta, general manager Fran Wren was able to improve the pitching staff with the additions of Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, and Javier Vazquez via trade and free agency.
Yet, while pitching was the Braves’ Achilles’ heel in 2008, the bats didn’t do much better. Atlanta finished 14th in the NL with 130 home runs, grounded into 143 double plays—fourth-most in the NL—and lost 30 one-run games.
In addition, the entire Atlanta outfield combined for only 27 home runs and lacked a consistent RBI threat the entire season.
So, if last season was not evidence enough, the Braves’ free-swinging right fielder plays a huge role in the Atlanta lineup.
Although the batting order features future Hall-of-Fame third baseman Chipper Jones and three-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann, Francoeur is a key component to their success. And when Frenchy’s hitting suffers, so does the Braves offense.
Although Francoeur is not the only offensive threat in the Atlanta lineup, there will be times this season when he will have to step up and be a clutch hitter.
Jones has not played an injury-free season since 2003, McCann is susceptible to the wear and tear of being an MLB catcher, and new addition Garrett Anderson is not exactly the youngest guy in the clubhouse at 36 years old.
While Atlanta’s top sluggers will certainly be there to help carry the offensive load, Francoeur will need to be a steady fortress for the Braves this season. So far, Francoeur has started out slowly in spring training, compiling a .111 batting average and only knocking in two runs in 18 at-bats.
While spring training is hardly an indication of how a player or team will perform during the regular season, the Braves still remain optimistic about Francoeur’s improvement.
Hopefully, that optimism will pay off down the stretch in 2009. A productive Francoeur may be the difference between a playoff berth and a fourth-straight postseason absence for Atlanta.