Thursday, March 3, 2011
Seeking a return to the good old days
By Jerry Crasnick
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Predicting which young baseball prospects will hit it big is always an exercise in craps shooting. But, as one veteran scout recently observed, "Toolsy outfielders are the biggest hit-and-miss players of all." If you doubt those words of caution, just remember the names Wily Mo Pena, Ruben Rivera, Chad Mottola, Darnell McDonald, Joe Borchard and Mike Kelly, to name a few.
Best of luck, Cameron Maybin. Time will tell whether you're next on that list.
"There's no such thing as a 'can't miss' prospect," said Kansas City Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who is living proof that's true. Francoeur's planned route to 400 home runs and a dozen All-Star appearances was derailed when he experienced failure for the first time and washed out with his hometown team in Atlanta. Three cities later, he's trying to re-establish himself with a young Kansas City club.
At least Francoeur has a big league contract in his pocket and a starting job within his grasp. Jeremy Hermida, who went 12 picks ahead of Francoeur in the 2002 draft, is in the Cincinnati Reds' camp as a non-roster invitee and competing for a spot as a left-handed bat off the bench. And Lastings Milledge, the New York Mets' first pick in 2003, just signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox a month ago. If Milledge cracks the Opening Day roster, he'll make a base salary of $500,000, barely above the minimum.
Milledge is 25 years old, and Francoeur and Hermida are 27. How do these guys feel about fighting for scraps a few years after gracing the cover of Baseball America (and, in Francoeur's case, Sports Illustrated, which christened him "The Natural")? How did they fall from organizational golden boys to discards so quickly?
"I think the best way to sum it up is, baseball is a tough game," Hermida said. "Just because you come in and have success the first couple of years, that doesn't guarantee you anything."
Francoeur and Hermida both cited the examples of Jayson Werth and Jose Bautista, whose careers were stagnating before they caught a second wind in their late 20s and parlayed it into a combined $191 million in long-term contracts this offseason.
A pipe dream? Perhaps. But when the real dreams begin to fade, you take encouragement wherever you can get it.
Baseball is a tough game. Just because you come in and have success the first couple of years, that doesn't guarantee you anything.
-- Jeremy Hermida
"Physically, he will remind you of Paul O'Neill. Big, strong guy with long legs and a beautiful swing. This is one of those swings that doesn't come along very often." -- Florida scouting director Jim Fleming after the Marlins picked Hermida at No. 11 in the 2002 draft.
Hermida also generated his share of comparisons to Andy Van Slyke and Eric Chavez when the Marlins picked him out of Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga. They gave him a bonus of $2 million, packed him off to the Gulf Coast League and exulted over what he might become one day.
It wasn't long before the Marlins were sampling the merchandise. They summoned Hermida in late August 2005 after only 1,378 minor league at-bats. Hermida made his big league debut as a pinch hitter against St. Louis and joined William (Frosty Bill) Duggleby as the second player in history to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat. Hermida and Duggleby have since been joined by Kevin Kouzmanoff and Daniel Nava.
The magnitude of Hermida's feat became clear when the Hall of Fame called in search of a souvenir. Marlins reliever Todd Jones, always quick with a quip, joked, "It's all downhill from here." Little did he know.
Hermida blossomed at age 23, slugging .501 with 18 homers and 32 doubles. But the Marlins thought Hermida became too pull-happy in an attempt to hit more homers in advance of salary arbitration, and they believed he messed up that picturesque swing in the process. It didn't help that the Marlins' stadium was death on power hitters, or that Hermida suffered a series of hip, knee and hamstring injuries.
Hermida has always been more of a gliding, one-speed type of player rather than a sudden-burst-of-energy type (think J.D. Drew), and his lack of outward emotion prompted some scouts to question his inner fire. It's no secret that former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez was not a fan.
Hermida, naturally, takes issue with the perception that he lacks competitive drive.
"I leave it out there every day," Hermida said. "Sometimes it may not look that way because of the way I run and do certain things. But I think it's a little bit unfair for people to say that. Ask the other 24 guys in the clubhouse, and they'll tell you I do it out there every day. Unfortunately, people go on perception, and you have to do what you can to try and change that. But you can't necessarily change who you are."
Hermida delivered some big hits early last year in Boston, then fractured several ribs in a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre. He ended last season with Oakland, then landed on Cincinnati's radar in December. The Reds have had success with Jonny Gomes and Laynce Nix on minor league deals, and recent history shows that Great American Ball Park can have a therapeutic effect on offensive production.
The question is, where does Hermida fit? The Reds have Jay Bruce in right field, Drew Stubbs in center, and plenty of at-bats available in left for some fortunate left-handed hitter to divvy up with Gomes. The ABs might go to Fred Lewis, who is in camp on a guaranteed major league deal. Or it might be Hermida. His chance to stick could hinge on whether the Reds decide to keep Chris Heisey or send him to Triple-A Louisville to begin the season.
|Jeremy Hermida, the Marlins' first selection in the 2002 draft, is in Reds camp as a non-roster invitee.|
"He was the same size at age 13 that he is now. And he had the same tools. I haven't seen anyone with better bat speed using a metal bat. It was just stupid." -- Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez, who played high school ball against Milledge in Florida.
It was one thing when scouts and reporters compared Milledge to Andruw Jones coming out of high school. Scan the old newspaper clips and, incredibly, you will find numerous Willie Mays comparisons, as well.
Milledge arrived in New York with some notoriety amid allegations of sexual misconduct in his teen years. He was expelled from his high school but never charged with a crime, and the Mets signed him to a $1.9 million bonus after hiring a private investigator to conduct their own investigation.
Once in New York, Milledge became a lightning rod for his exuberance. After he exchanged high-fives with Shea Stadium fans in celebration of a home run, teammate Billy Wagner hung a sign in Milledge's locker with the message, "Know Your Place, Rook!" Milledge now admits to feeling a sense of isolation with the Mets and being afraid to ask the veterans for help.
"It's definitely hard when you're a rookie," Milledge said. "You're kind of out there alone. Where I grew up, it didn't matter who you were. Everybody joked around and had fun. But when you get to the big leagues, you really have to be quiet, and I never was that kind of guy.
"There are certain things you have to learn at the big league level -- what to do and what not to do, when to do it, and who to do it at. Some people are old school and some are new school. You end up rubbing people the wrong way. That's kind of what I did. Not purposely, but maybe trying to fit in. Maybe trying to let people know who I am and things like that. There's a lot to learn, man."
For all Milledge's attributes, he's something of a "tweener." He lacks the defensive instincts to play center field and the power to be an impact player at a corner spot. And the consensus is that his feel for the game leaves something to be desired.
"If you worked him out, you'd say that he had great speed, he can throw and he can juice a ball," one scout said. "But I've seen a lot of kids who have great tools who can't play baseball very well."
Ironically, while Milledge's professional star has dimmed, former teammates say he's a better person and teammate than his public image suggests. White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, who played with Milledge in Washington, is among that group.
"He's great," Dunn said. "But baseball is a game of reputations. Once you get one, you can't get rid of it. It's unfair, but that's how it is. He's not what you would expect or how you'd think he would be. Plus, he's just a little pup still."
Milledge didn't help his cause when he landed on YouTube in December in the middle of an ugly winter league brawl in Venezuela, but he has recovered nicely. He cut his dreadlocks at the behest of his girlfriend, and now he's lockering beside Juan Pierre, whose work ethic is always a positive example to young players.
Milledge is probably 50-50 at best to crack Chicago's Opening Day roster. Manager Ozzie Guillen has Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios and Pierre in the outfield, with Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo in the mix and Brent Lillibridge also capable of playing the outfield.
"There are a lot of people you would never think would make it to the big leagues who are having big-time years and getting big-time dollars," Milledge said. "You just never know in this game. You can have all the talent in the world, but you need to be able to put it all together."
It's definitely hard when you're a rookie. You're kind of out there alone. Where I grew up, it didn't matter who you were. Everybody joked around and had fun. But when you get to the big leagues, you really have to be quiet, and I never was that kind of guy.
-- Lastings Milledge
"He's going to be a superstar, no doubt about it. He'll be the next Dale Murphy. If he continues to hit and play the outfield like he has for the first 20 or so games of his career, we're going to be talking about more than that." -- Braves third baseman Chipper Jones in August 2005 after Francoeur hit .432 in his first three weeks with the Braves.
"Francoeur's the talk of the city. He's captivated our fans, and rightfully so with what he's done defensively and with the bat, too. Even when he strikes out it looks pretty good." -- Atlanta manager Bobby Cox during Francoeur's rookie season.
The Dale Murphy comparisons were inevitable when the Braves chose Francoeur 23rd overall in 2002. Francoeur was tall, rangy and athletic enough to land a football scholarship to Clemson. He's as close to Murphy as a person can get on the congeniality scale. And he grew up in Atlanta, so he gave Braves fans an honest-to-goodness local hero to cheer.
In hindsight, Francoeur concedes that he was a bit "hard-headed" in the early days. He was also very anxious to please. After Francoeur hit 29 homers in 2006, some critics harped on his .293 on-base percentage, so he concentrated on drawing more walks. Then his home run total dipped, and he switched to a football workout regimen and bulked up to 242 pounds. The weight gain was death on his quick-twitch muscles.
Eventually, Francoeur's shortcomings made him easy pickings for NL pitchers. He always had a long swing, and that meant starting the bat earlier and committing too soon against junk early in the count. When opponents threw Francoeur fewer strikes, he simply gritted his teeth and swung the bat harder. Things bottomed out when the Braves sent him to the minors for a 14 at-bat refresher course in 2008.
"It got to the point in Atlanta where it was difficult to come to the park and have reporters ask you the same thing every day. Feeling like you're the reason the team is losing. You're letting everybody down. It took a toll on me," Francoeur said. "I was ready to get out of there. I really was."
Francoeur made a positive first impression with his next team, the Mets, before losing the right-field job to Angel Pagan. He played in the World Series with Texas, then signed a one-year, guaranteed $2.5 million deal with Kansas City, where GM Dayton Moore knows him from the Atlanta days. Francoeur has an .824 career OPS against lefties compared with .699 versus righties, but it appears he will get every opportunity to prove he's more than a platoon player. If he can hit .270 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs, the Royals will be ecstatic.
"I tell people all the time, 'When I failed in Atlanta, you don't think that hurt me worse than anything?'" Francoeur said. "I had it unbelievable in Atlanta. You don't think I wanted to play there 17 or 18 years and never have to leave my home? We had our dog, my whole family and my wife's whole family. I had it great. Now we're shipping stuff all over the country."
This spring, Francoeur reported to camp at a lithe 207 pounds, with no expectations to encumber him. Not long ago, teammates and opponents were comparing him to Dale Murphy. Who could have imagined that his top three career comparables on Baseball-Reference.com are now Rip Repulski, Ron Coomer and George Altman?
"My dad said it best: You don't have to read all the good stuff, just like you don't have to read all the bad stuff," Francoeur said. "I used to worry about what the blogs said. Now I'm like, 'You know what, dude, who cares? Just go out and play.'"
|Once a star in the making with the Braves, Jeff Francoeur is with his fourth team in three years after signing with the Royals in the offseason.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.