Kansas City Royals fans don't have Jeff Francoeur to kick around anymore, not after the front office designated him for assignment on Saturday night. Francoeur was, in a way, the personification of everything that hasn't gone right for the Royals over the last few seasons. Let's review his career with a Prospect Retrospective.
Francoeur was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the first round in 2002, out of high school in Lilburn, Georgia. He had a football scholarship to Clemson as a defensive back, but his home state team got him inked to baseball. At the time, scouting reports pointed to Five Tool potential including speed, power, and a strong throwing arm.
There were some problems however. Some teams felt that he was an impatient hitter, that his swing needed work, and worried that he couldn't handle good breaking balls. He was young of course, and the Braves felt all of these problems were fixable. The Braves were also particularly taken with his personality and makeup, and of course he was a local talent.
The Braves looked like geniuses when he destroyed Appalachian League pitching in his pro debut, hitting .327/.395/.585 in 38 games. I gave him a Grade B entering 2003, noting his immense potential but also writing that "the Braves have a poor record of helping hitters like this develop."
Sent to Low-A Rome for 2003, Francoeur hit .281/.325/.445 with 14 homers, 14 steals, 30 walks, and 68 strikeouts in 524 at-bats. He didn't strike out very much, but scouting reports remained about the same: enormous potential, but with an aggressive, impatient approach that might not play at higher levels. He remained a Grade B for me in the 2004 book.
He missed several weeks in 2004 after getting hit in the face with a pitch, but he came back sooner than expected and drew praise for his work ethic and fortitude in overcoming the injury. He continued to thrive against High-A pitching, hitting .293/.346/.506 with 15 homers, 22 walks, and 70 strikeouts in 334 at-bats in High-A. However, he had problems after moving up to Double-A, hitting just .197/.197/.342 with zero walks and 14 strikeouts in 76 at-bats. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and raised him to a Grade B+, though I also noted that he needed to get the zone under control and that he could struggle if rushed.
Francoeur opened 2005 in Double-A, hitting .275/.322/.487 with 13 homers, 21 walks, and 76 strikeouts in 335 at-bats. This was enough for the Braves to promote him to the major leagues for the second half. So much for my worries about being rushed: he hit .300/.335/.549 with 14 homers in 70 games. However, his plate discipline was poor, with just 11 walks drawn, and it was clear that major league pitchers would find this weakness at some point.
As you know, he played regularly for the Braves in 2006 and 2007, showing power with 29 and 19 homers and driving in more than 100 runs per season. But his plate discipline remained shaky and his on-base percentage was a drag on the lineup, particularly in 2006 at .293. The home runs disappeared in 2008 with just 11 in 155 games (along with a dismal 294 OBP) and the Braves eventually gave up on him, shipping him to the Mets. He eventually landed in Kansas City, brought in by Dayton Moore to provide a familiar veteran presence.
You know the rest of the story. Francoeur had an adequately decent year in 2011 (.285/.329/.476, 20 homers, 119 OPS+, 2.6 WAR). However, he was horrible in 2012 and so far in 2013, with very long droughts of nothingness that put a big hole in the lineup. It is pretty clear what happened: he never solved his issue with plate discipline, leaving him with unacceptably weak on-base percentages. He doesn't run or field as well as he did when he was younger. At this point, he has no value.
He is still just 29 and I suppose a change of scenery could help him rebound, but it would be pretty unusual if he suddenly gained command of the strike zone.
I think the thing that stands out most for me is how little Francoeur actually changed over the years. The scouting reports from high school and his minor league career described him as an excellent makeup player with physical strength, raw power, speed, and a strong arm, but with an overaggressive approach to hitting that advanced pitchers would exploit if he didn't correct.
His natural talent was such that he succeeded against minor league pitching and early in his major league career even with his problems. However, once big league pitchers found the holes, he never fully closed them.