What the Ryan Church-Jeff Francoeur Trade Really Means For Atlanta

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What the Ryan Church-Jeff Francoeur Trade Really Means For Atlanta
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

So far, the analysis of today's trade of outfielders between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets has focused solely on the players exchanged—Ryan Church and Jeff Francoeur.

Defensively, as some other writers have noted, the trade is a wash. Francoeur has the better arm, but Church has a slight edge on range.

Both have fallen out of favor with their managers, for different reasons. Church wasn't the same player after a collision and concussion last season, which coincided with the Mets' managerial change.

Francoeur has been an offensive sinkhole for much of the past two years, as pitch recognition, pitch selection and hitting mechanics have him a bit messed up.

Francoeur might have been non-tendered by the Braves had he not been traded. Church won't be the seemingly automatic out, but might rediscover some power now that he doesn't call Citi Field his home.

A close look at Church's Home/Away splits tell part one of the story.

At Citi Field, Church is hitting a paltry .216 with a .576 OPS.

Away from Citi Field, his numbers improve to a .326 batting average with an .804 OPS.

Looking deeper, the individuals in the trade who won were really Matt Diaz and Jason Heyward.

Huh?

A look at Ryan Church's Left/Right splits tell part two of the story.

Against lefties, Church is hitting .167 with a .414 OPS. Against righties, those numbers are a .310 batting average and .784 OPS.

By getting Church out of Citi Field, it's a logical argument that his overall numbers will be better than his season averages. While Turner Field is not the hitters' haven for lefties like Yankee Stadium or Citizens Bank Park, it's better than New York's NL Park.

Church's struggles against lefties means Matt Diaz will most assuredly be playing right field when Atlanta's opposing a left-handed starter.

Garret Anderson's splits aren't so polarized. Most of his numbers are slightly better away from Turner Field except for slugging percentage. All of Anderson's home runs are against righties, but his average against lefties is about 50 points higher—.316 to be exact. 

So, what does this mean for 2009. Against lefties, Church will be sitting while Matt Diaz starts in right field and likely Garret Anderson in left. Against righties, Church will play right field and Anderson will continue to get most of the starts in left, but Diaz will play once or twice a week in left to give Anderson a day off. The three will likely have similar numbers of at-bats as each of them will probably play 4-5 days a week and rest for two.

This also means that the Jason Heyward train might be arriving in Atlanta sooner than some may have expected.

Die-hard Atlanta fans know Jason Heyward. He was the Braves' first round pick in 2007, and rated as one of the top five prospects in all of baseball at the beginning of the 2009 season—despite playing at Class A Myrtle Beach at the end of the 2008 season.

He's tall, athletic, fast and hits for high average and power. He is as some scouts described "a more athletic version of Fred McGriff."

He's a left-handed hitter and thrower, who has produced at every level—Danville, Rome, Myrtle Beach and as of last week, Mississippi.

He doesn't turn 20 until next month, and he's already at AA. And—he's heading to St. Louis this weekend to play in the Futures Game for the USA.

Here's a selection from the Minor League Baseball website:

"Heyward spent the first half of the 2009 season with the High-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the Carolina League. While in Myrtle Beach, he hit .296 with 12 doubles, 10 homers, 31 RBI and 34 runs scored. Since joining the M-Braves, he's hit .333 (6-18) with two doubles, two triples and five RBI in only five games."

Actually, since that report was made, he's played three more games at AA. That .346 average with an OPS around 1.050 including seven RBI in eight games showed that his numbers earlier this season with Class A Rome (.296 average, 10 HR, 31 RBI, in 49 games and an .888 OPS) is probably not a fluke.

A strong finish to the season for Heyward might land him in Atlanta on Opening Day 2010. Or it could be like Tommy Hanson, just a couple of months at AAA before a mid-season call up. 

Either way, Heyward's opportunity is there. It's very much like 2005.

In 2005, the Braves signed 30-something veterans Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to be their corner outfielders. By mid-season Mondesi was gone and a 21 year-old rookie burst on to the scene by the name of Jeff Francoeur with speed, power, offense, and a rocket arm in right field.

By all accounts, Heyward is going to be better, as his pitch selection is better. His high walk rate and career Minor League OPS above .370 coupled with his power numbers make him a more complete prospect.

The Braves are not afraid to promote young prospects if they're ready. Rafael Furcal won the Rookie of the Year at age 21 in 2000 (even though they thought he was 19 when he started the season), after playing at Class A in 1999. Francoeur and McCann both made their MLB debuts with Atlanta three years after they were drafted in 2002.

For the rest of 2009, Braves fans should expect Church to sit against lefties. He should play well, be more patient at the plate, get on base more, and hit for more power. Diaz will get more playing time and be productive in his increased role.

Church's chances of being retained after he becomes a free agent at the end of the season are an unknown. If Heyward hits any speed bumps, the Braves might try to bring him back on a one-year deal. If Heyward hits .300 with an .OPS in the neighborhood of .900 or even higher and gets to 20 homeruns—I expect he'll be the favorite to gain the right field job when the Braves head to spring training in February.

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