Jeff Francis Career Profile
I don't mean to turn this into a Royals blog, but I am intrigued with Kansas City's signing of Jeff Francis as a free agent. Per reader request, here is a look at his background as a prospect.
Jeff Francis was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the first round in 2002, from the University of British Columbia, as the ninth-overall pick signing for $1.85 million. He pitched 30 innings in his pro debut between Tri-City in the Northwest League and Asheville in the Sally League, posting a combined 38/8 K/BB ratio, with 21 hits allowed and a 1.20 ERA. Despite his Canadian background, he was considered extremely polished, working at 89-93 MPH with an above average breaking ball, a good changeup, and sharp command. I gave him a Grade B in the 2003 book.
Moved up to Visalia in the California League for 2003, Francis got off to a slow start in April and May, but picked up the pace in June and finished strong in all respects, going 12-9, 3.47 with a 153/45 K/BB ratio in 160 innings, 135 hits allowed overall. This included a 1.06 ERA in his last 13 starts. All of his component ratios were substantially better than league average, and he got positive scouting reports, still working at 89-93 with an improved changeup, though some scouts felt his breaking ball needed more crispness. I rated him as a Grade B+ entering 2004, rating him at Number 38 on my Top 50 pitcher's list.
Moved up to Double-A Tulsa in 2004, Francis made Texas League hitters look like fools, going 13-1, 1.98 in 17 starts with a 147/22 K/BB in 113 innings, 73 hits allowed. He was almost as good after moving up to Triple-A (2.85 in seven starts, 49/7 K/BB in 41 innings): that was at Colorado Springs and the Pacific Coast League, remember. He finished the year with seven major league starts and held his own, going 3-2, 5.16 with a 32/13 K/BB in 36 innings. Scouts reported a better breaking ball and further progress with the changeup, while continuing to praise his pitching instincts and mound presence. I got to see him in the Texas League, and while the radar gun kept giving a consistent 88-92 with his fastball, it looked a lot faster since he changed speeds so well and never tipped off his secondary pitches. I gave him a Grade A in the 2005 book, ranked as the Number Three pitching prospect in baseball, behind Felix Hernandez and the injury-doomed Adam Miller.
As you know, Francis had an up-and-down rookie season in '05, going 14-12 but with a 5.68 ERA. He was much better in '06 and '07, going 30-20 the two seasons combined with a 4.20 ERA and an ERA+ of 115. He had a sore shoulder in '08, resulting in a 4-10 record and 5.01 ERA, then missed all of '09 after surgery. He came back last year with another mediocre season, then signed an incentive-laden contract for 2011 with the Royals. All-told in Colorado, Francis went 55-50, 4.77 with an ERA+ of 100 exactly.
It can take time to fully rebound from shoulder surgery. Fangraphs data indicates that Francis has lost about 1 MPH off his fastball compared to 2007. His career ERA was actually about a half-run better at home than it was on the road, but I really can't see how pitching in Kansas City can be worse than pitching in Colorado from a park perspective. His FIP was 3.88 last year, much better than his 5.00 ERA.
All-told, I think this is a nice pickup by the Royals. Francis has a decent chance to be at least a league-average pitcher, and there's a possibility that he could be much better than that, with a change of scenery and as the injury recedes in the background. His one-year contract is worth $2 million plus incentives, which strikes me as a potential bargain by today's standards. We'll see if the Royals can put a halfway-competent defense behind him.