When the Atlanta Braves made Jeff Francoeur their first round selection in 2002 MLB Draft, a lot of hype surrounded the kid from Parkview High School—and for good reason.
A two-sport star in high school, Francoeur made headlines when he decided to turn down a football scholarship from Clemson University in order to play professional baseball.
The Braves organization cheered Francoeur's move as he soared through Atlanta's farm system, accumulating a great deal of accolades including the distinction of being named the Braves' best prospect by Baseball America in 2004.
When Francoeur was finally called up by Atlanta during the 2005 season, he did not disappoint in his big league debut, smacking a three-run home run to seal a 9-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field.
However, Francoeur, who brought a passionate fervor and joy to the field when he played the game, was just getting started.
Teaming up with fellow "Baby Braves", catcher Brian McCann and second baseman Kelly Johnson, Francoeur helped give Atlanta the push they needed to clinch their 14th consecutive NL East division title.
Although the 2005 season ended with a disappointing loss to the Houston Astros in the NL Divisional Playoff Series, the Braves' rookie right fielder had quickly become a rock star in Atlanta.
Displaying a unique aggressiveness in the batter's box and a rocket arm that rounded up 14 outfield assists in a mere three months, "Frenchy" was a sure fire fan favorite.
The hometown hero only added to his growing legend during the 2006 season, using his momentum from 2005 to pound NL pitching in his first full season in MLB.
In addition to hitting a walk-off grand slam to defeat the Washington Nationals 8-5 in May, Francoeur became a run-producing machine for the defending NL East Champions.
Despite hitting for a pedestrian .260 batting average, No. 7 smashed 29 home runs, drove in 103 runs, and became just the fourth Brave to ever play in all 162 regular season games.
While Frenchy's 132 strikeouts and 23 walks brought up concerns about his patience at the plate, they were mostly ignored as a result of his productivity.
Yet, despite his durability and power numbers, Atlanta struggled through to a third place finish in the NL East—snapping their streak of consecutive division titles.
Determined to get Atlanta back on a winning track, Francoeur lit up opposing pitchers for 19 home runs and 105 runs batted in during the 2007 season and, most notably, brought his batting average up to a sterling .293.
In addition to his great year on offense, Francoeur channeled teammate Andruw Jones in the outfield, tallying 19 assists and winning his first Gold Glove Award in right field.
However, by no fault of Francoeur's, the Braves once again failed to reach the playoffs, finishing third in the NL East for the second consecutive season.
The frustration of missing the playoffs for back-to-back seasons placed Francoeur under a great deal of pressure to perform at the highest level.
In addition to facing increased personal expectations, he also had the challenge of filling the void left by Andruw Jones—both in the outfield and in the batting order during the 2008 season.
As a result of his newly assumed responsibilities, Frenchy worked to bulk up during the offseason in an attempt to return to his power-hitting form of 2006.
Francoeur hit the ground running in 2008, slamming two home runs and knocking in seven runs in an early-season matchup with the Nationals.
However, it would prove to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for both Atlanta and their star outfielder.
Battling an onslaught of injuries, the Braves struggled to keep pace with their division rivals, as many inexperienced players were thrust into the fire in Atlanta.
Faced with a desire to help his team and a self-imposed overextension, Francoeur tried to do too much at the plate, becoming overeager and careless with his mechanics.
Francoeur's trademark aggressiveness at the plate became his fatal flaw, as he developed a tendency to swing at almost every pitch and recorded nearly three times as many strikeouts (59) as walks (20) through the end of June.
In addition to a lack of plate discipline, Francoeur also struggled to reach base whenever he put the ball into play—mustering a miniscule 77 hits in 232 at-bats at June's end.
As a result of his offensive woes, Braves management decided to demote Francoeur to Double-A Mississippi July 4 in hopes that it would help him relax and regain his confidence.
The Braves hoped that Francoeur’s strong bond with Mississippi manager Phil Wellman would enable Wellman to help Frenchy to “find his swing” and turn his season around.
While Francoeur was upset by the abrupt decision to send him down to the minor leagues, he responded well, noting that he had developed a better sense of comfort in the batter’s box.
However, as the Braves were further decimated by endless injuries, they were forced to cut off the Francoeur project and call him back up to Atlanta just three days after sending him down.
In addition to being mired in the mother of all slumps, Francoeur’s confidence had been shaken by a poorly executed plan that was originally intended to help him.
Reeling from the minor league debacle, as well as the unstoppable downhill slide of Atlanta’s record, Francoeur’s season mercifully came to an end as the Braves limped to an ugly fourth place finish in the NL East.
Never had Frenchy endured such an unsuccessful year as 2008. He finished with only 11 home runs, 70 RBI, a ghastly .239 batting average, and 111 strikeouts, compared to a meager 39 walks.
“The Golden Boy,” as he was called by Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, had lost his shine.
Francoeur was distraught after experiencing a 2008 season in which Atlanta had lost 90 games. His offensive production had collapsed, and he had booed by his own fans at Turner Field.
Eager to reverse his nightmarish 2008 campaign, Francoeur worked diligently on his game during the offseason, hoping to redeem himself to both his teammates and his fans.
However, despite his hard work, Francoeur has not seen it pay dividends this season. His batting average sits at a miserable mark of .248, with five home runs and 32 RBI.
While he has expressed that he is feeling more comfortable at the plate, that comfort has not been enough for Francoeur to bring his numbers back to their pre-2008 form.
Yet, despite his struggles, all of the pieces are there for Frenchy to become a forced to be reckoned with in the Atlanta lineup again.
For one, he has the confidence of his teammates and his manager. Jones has called Francoeur “the key to the Braves offense” and McCann remarked that Frenchy is “one of the best athletes you’ll ever see.”
Secondly, Francoeur undoubtedly has the talent to turn his season around, when taking his past performance with Atlanta and his natural athletic ability to play the game of baseball into consideration.
As his first three seasons with the Braves clearly show, the guy wearing the No. 7 jersey is capable of hitting for a lot of power and has one of the best throwing arms in the National League.
The main problem plaguing Francoeur is that he has strayed from the basics of his unique style of playing baseball.
Francoeur is, by nature, a very aggressive batter, but he has to re-establish the selectivity that resulted in a career-high .293 batting average during the 2007 season.
In addition to practicing more selectivity in the batter’s box, Frenchy also needs to accept that he cannot hit a three-run home run every single time he steps up to the plate.
Francoeur needs to realize that a base hit to the opposite field or a sacrifice fly to cut the opponent’s lead in half will do just fine—and he is more than capable of doing that.
Lastly, and most importantly, Frenchy needs to clear his head and to have fun.
While that concept may seem cliché or irrelevant, Francoeur’s passion for baseball forms the very foundation of his game.
When the Braves called up their top prospect during the 2005 season, his love of baseball and the big smile he always wore on his face made him an endearing personality to teammates, the media, and fans alike.
If Francoeur can relax and just play ball when he goes out on the diamond, his struggles will become a thing of the past.
The best thing for him to do now is to ignore the trade rumors involving his name and the criticism he is receiving for his poor play.
He should go back and do what Jeff Francoeur does best: playing his heart out and having fun playing baseball for the Atlanta Braves.