The mid 2000’s was not the most memorable period to be an Atlanta Braves fan.  Coming off of three straight first-round exits in the playoffs, there was an unavoidable thought in the Braves community during the ‘04-05 offseason that Atlanta’s reign of supremacy was nearing an end. 

There wasn’t much sympathy to be found in the baseball community, however.  Atlanta fans had the reputation for being spoiled—although there were many teams that would’ve enjoyed a single postseason appearance, the Braves made it a habit of finding their way to the playoffs year after year due to trademark performances.

But there was a sense that some of these trademarks were coming to an end in the ‘04-05 offseason.  The previous year, Greg Maddux departed Atlanta to return to the Cubs.  A few years prior, Tom Glavine left for the Mets

While Atlanta fans were a bit remorseful about these departures, the organization still had household names associated with it.  There were those that had been with the club since their World Series title in 1995 (e.g. Chipper Jones, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox) and some that had been with the club for a number of playoff appearances, but no World Series titles (e.g. Andruw Jones). 

But the sense of a declining era of dominance was looming—Chipper, Smoltz and Cox weren’t getting any younger.  Andruw Jones was still young, but his future with the club was uncertain.  Thus, many Braves fans were relying on a promising crop of farm products to fill in the gaps. 

One of these farm products was Jeff Francoeur.  After being named the top prospect in the Atlanta organization in 2004, many Braves fans thought that the future of the franchise rested partly in his hands.  Furthermore, with the departure of J.D. Drew in the ’04-05 offseason, there was a hole that needed to be filled in right field. 

Although Raul Mondesi was added to the roster to temporarily fill this gap, Braves fans were expecting to see the debut of Francoeur sometime in the 2005 season.  As expected, Francoeur made his first major league appearance in July of that year.  While more recent Braves fans have become accustomed to seeing hyped-up farm products hit a home run in their first game (e.g. Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward), Francoeur’s home run in the eight inning of his debut was extremely symbolic.  With it came the confirmation that he would indeed live up to the expectations and carry the franchise back to a dominant state.

As the Braves made a push for another consecutive postseason appearance, Francoeur didn’t slow down.  He finished the 2005 season hitting .300 with 14 HRs and 45 RBIs (274 PAs).  Although Atlanta witnessed another first-round exit in the playoffs that year, there was a sense of optimism amongst the collective Braves community.  There was a new generation of players being ushered in, and Jeff Francoeur (along with Brian McCann) gave the impression that the direction Atlanta was headed in was, in fact, the right one.

The following season, Francoeur continued to deliver.  He finished 2006 hitting .260 with 29 HRs and 103 RBIs, appearing in all 162 regular season games. But there was a growing reputation for how to pitch to the young hitter—don’t throw him anything over the plate, especially not the first pitch. 

Francoeur swung at 52 percent of first pitches in 2006 and at 36 percent of balls out of the strike zone.  This led to an abysmal .293 OBP and only 23 BBs in 686 PAs.  Opposing pitching was quick to identify this trend and routinely forced Francoeur to swing at bad pitches.  To counter this inevitable strategy, Francoeur and then-hitting coach Terry Pendleton made it their number one priority in the ‘06-07 offseason to improve Francoeur’s plate discipline. 

One could argue how effective this approach ultimately was, but in 2007 Francoeur nearly doubled his BBs (42) and added nearly 50 points to his OBP (.338) while still putting up decent run production (19 HRs and 105 RBIs).  Braves fans were reassured time and time again that Francoeur’s plate discipline was a work-in-progress, but he was nonetheless perceived as a free-swinging outfielder who, despite his trigger happiness, would always give you phenomenal defense (Francoeur won the Gold Glove in 2007) and would stay off the disabled list (Francoeur appeared in 370 consecutive games between ’05-08).

The 2008 season made it clear that pitchers were figuring out Francoeur faster than he was.  Francoeur’s numbers dropped in several categories compared to the 2007 season (-8 HRs, -34 RBIs, -.054 BA, -.044 OBP) and he was still swinging at 43 percent of first pitches and at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone.  Trying to spark a flame in Francoeur’s performance, the Braves designated him to a brief stint in the minors during the 2008 season. The optimism for Francoeur was steadily declining, and it was becoming increasingly clear that something drastic had to change in his approach or else the Braves might look to deal.

Sure enough, Francoeur was shipped to the Mets in July of 2009.  I vividly remember hearing the news, feeling disappointed in both the decision to trade and what was given in return (Ryan Church).  I, like many others, was confident that Francoeur would eventually snap of his slump and post numbers more reminiscent of his ’06 and ’07 campaigns.  Nonetheless, Atlanta’s front office felt differently and in four years Francoeur went from representing the future of the franchise to an example of how ambiguous a player’s potential can truly be.

Despite Francoeur’s roster position with a rivaled franchise, I continued to stay optimistic about his abilities.  But as his time with the Mets expanded to the 2010 season, Francoeur proved that old habits die hard.  While fluctuating in and out of everyday duties with the Mets, Francoeur’s low OBP and declining run production were proving to be commonalities rather than exemptions.  As the 2010 season was coming to an end, the Mets shipped Francoeur off to the Rangers, a team that had secured a postseason birth and was looking to add depth to their playoff roster.  Francoeur proceeded to go on a tear that September, batting .340 in 15 games/56 PAs before cooling off in the postseason. 

At the beginning of this offseason, Francoeur’s name wasn’t near the top of many organizations’ targeted free-agent lists.  He was, however, viewed as a potential platoon player in Philadelphia and a potential everyday player in Kansas City.  Francoeur signed a one-year deal with the Royals in early December and will serve as the opening day right fielder for the club.  The question for Royals fans, and for the Braves fans that still cheer him on, is whether he can return to his previous form or if his 2008 mediocrity will prevail.  While there are obviously a number of variables into how 2011 will turn out for Francoeur, I argue that Kansas City may prove to be a catalyst for Francoeur’s career.

The most important thing to consider is the environment in Kansas City.  Realistically, this is the first time in his major league career that Francoeur will be in a situation free of pressure.  During his entire tenure in Atlanta, from the time he made his debut until the day he was traded, there was an overwhelming amount of pressure placed on Francoeur. 

I don’t define this pressure as the expectations that were placed on him immediately—he posted respectable numbers despite the heavy media attention.  There was an entirely different dimension of pressure placed on Francoeur that dealt with his approach to hitting.  Once the new car smell wore off of Francoeur, fans and ownership began questioning whether he could change his approach to hitting to counter the ways pitchers were handling him.  This pressure undoubtedly took a mental toll on Francoeur; he was told to inhibit his natural tendencies in order to work on his OBP. 

While these concerns were never expressed vocally, my impression whenever Francoeur stepped up to the plate was that he was going up there trying to do what the coaches wanted rather than doing what felt natural to him.  I could be entirely wrong, but the stats seem to support this theory.

When Francoeur was traded to New York, Atlanta stated that they wanted him to enjoy the benefits of a new environment.  While it may have been a new environment, it wasn’t necessarily a pressure-free situation.  The media-heavy baseball landscape in New York isn’t forgiving to players’ performances, and one can question whether Francoeur ever felt pressure-free in New York, let alone comfortable.  Even when he was traded to Texas in late 2010, Francoeur was placed into an organization that was pushing for a World Series title.

Therefore, one can make a strong argument that Francoeur has never been in a pressure- or expectation-free environment.  While there will certainly be expectations placed on him in Kansas City, that’s an entirely different component than pressure.  There was no pressure on Francoeur during his early days in Atlanta, only expectations.  The pressure began to set in once his abilities came into question; pressures that have remained with him up until the conclusion of the 2010 season. 

Francoeur made it clear in his inaugural Kansas City press conference that he felt comfortable and excited for the upcoming season.  The smile on his face was one I believed to be genuine and reminiscent of his early days in Atlanta and his hot streak in Texas. 

While certain writers (e.g. Aaron Gleeman at Hardball Talk) have mocked those of us who wish to evaluate a circumstance based on the presence or absence of a smile, those of us who have followed Francoeur throughout his entire career realize that this smile was largely absent in Atlanta and New York—not just during his cold streaks, but even before the cold streaks began.  Once the pressure began to set in on Francoeur in 2008, that smile began to disappear for long periods at a time.   

Now that Francoeur is in a pressure-free environment and a situation he’s comfortable with, time will tell what he’s still capable of.  I’m not going to give any bold predictions for how I think he’ll perform in 2011, because I honestly don’t know which Jeff Francoeur will show up.  He’s stated numerous times that he’s no longer home-run biased and instead tries to go where the pitch takes him.  Thus, I’m not going to predict that he’ll hit around 30 HRs like he did in 2006. 

It’s also unclear how Kansas City will approach him from the managerial standpoint.  Will they do as Atlanta did and try to work on his plate discipline?  That approach didn’t work out in Atlanta, but who’s to say how it would turn out in Kansas City. 

While I’m not going to give any statistical predictions for Francoeur’s 2011 season, I will state this: he’ll be playing in a pressure-free environment for the first time in many, many years.  Even though his time in New York was meant to serve as a new beginning, I never got that impression.  This is the first time in Francoeur’s career where I truly see a new jersey as a new beginning.  Whether that will translate into better numbers, I can’t say, but I do believe that Kansas City was the best fit for Francoeur and that Royals fans should be optimistic towards their opening day right fielder.

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