The Kansas City Royals may be legitimate contenders for the first time in nearly two decades, but face the question of whether they should trade right fielder Jeff Francoeur. That answer should be an emphatic no.
Kansas City GM Dayton Moore spoke with MLB.com about how he shored up his starting pitching this offseason by obtaining Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis. He hopes it will help his team, which has had one winning season since 1994, have a legitimate chance at making the 2013 playoffs.
The improved pitching may not matter if the Royals don’t get production from their position players, including a high-priced veteran like Francoeur.
Francoeur had a career year in 2011, hitting .285 with 20 home runs, 87 RBI and 22 steals. However, those numbers dipped last season to just .235 with 16 home runs, 49 RBI and four steals. His WAR of -2.7 was the worst in the majors according to BaseballReference.com.
Being a small market team, the Royals operate with limited funds. MLB.com’s Dick Kaegel wrote that the team is stretched thin with their approximate $80 million payroll in 2013. The Royals can’t afford to have Francoeur play the same way he did last season.
Francoeur will make $7.5 million in 2013, representing nearly a tenth of the entire team’s payroll. Despite last season’s disappointment, signs point to him rebounding and helping the team in their quest for the playoffs.
A deeper look at Francoeur’s numbers helps explain what wrong for him last season.
FanGraphs.com shows Francoeur’s 2012 season was likely both unlucky and an anomaly. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) was .272, well below his career average of .299.
The average player has a BABIP of between .290 and .310, suggesting that Francoeur didn't find as many holes as he might typically expect.
Additional evidence from FanGraphs.com points to bad luck instead of a decline in Francoeur’s ability. Surprisingly, he set a career-high in Line Drive Percentage (percentage of balls put in play that are line drives) last season with 21.3 percent.
When you combine Francoeur’s increased line drives with his FanGraph.com’s contact rates, which were among the best of his career, it’s clear that balls just weren't dropping for him.
Despite the extra line-drives, Francoeur also put the ball on the ground more in 2012 than ever before. 45 percent of balls he put in play were grounders, which tied a career-high. His 1.34 ground ball to fly ball ratio also represented a new personal high.
Francoeur figured to be pressed by prospect Wil Myers for playing time in 2013, but that changed when the youngster was the central figure in the trade that landed Shields and Davis.
With non-star outfielders like Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher signing contracts this offseason that will pay them more than $13 million per season, Francoeur could be a relative bargain at his salary. There are no obvious replacements in the Kansas City system, so the team should hope he regains his effectiveness.
Francoeur told the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton that he believes his struggles were related to a lack of focus:
Not to say I was unmotivated this year, but last year, I was able to go out there and… I’m trying just as hard this year, and putting in just as much work… Maybe it’s the focus or something but, last year, for some reasons I was locked in on a game plan.
Although the Royals may be maxed out on salary, they shouldn't trade Francoeur. Evidence shows last season was a likely blip and that better things may be ahead in 2013—when the team hopes to make a serious push for the playoffs.
Statistics via BaseballReference