Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Will Jeff Francoeur have a bounce-back season?
Full admission: Francoeur was never my favorite fantasy player to start with, because I tend to show more love to those with plate discipline. It's no secret that it is easier for a hitter to emerge and grow when he knows which pitches to swing at, and which to let pass by. Francoeur has always been a hacker, but nobody complained when he was a productive one, knocking in 100 runs a season. Basically, much of Francoeur's value in his early seasons with the Braves was tied into his RBI totals, and if there's any category that can be fickle, that's it. Runs batted in are hardly representative of a player's ability, as it depends on many factors. Ryan Howard keeps leading the league in RBIs, but only MVP voters think he's actually better than Albert Pujols.
OK, so I thought the always-aggressive Francoeur would be able to overcome poor plate discipline and hack his way to at least 30 home runs in 2008. It made sense. While his home run output fell from 29 in 2006 to 19 the year after, he had made strides in walk rate, he took more pitches and -- voilą! -- his batting average went up to .293, leading many to believe the trend upward into a better all-around hitter would continue. Instead, Francoeur was arguably the worst everyday player in the big leagues, sporting an awful .653 OPS, and there was little reason to see this coming. Of 145 qualified hitters, only four had a lower OPS. Two of them were speedsters drafted only for stolen bases (Willy Taveras, Michael Bourn), and the others were Athletics whom nobody drafted (Jack Hannahan, Eric Chavez).
Meanwhile, Francoeur was on many sleeper lists and coming off consecutive 100-RBI seasons. He ended up with 71 RBIs in 2008 while hitting only 11 home runs and sporting a .239 batting average, numbers that couldn't have been expected. When Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn or Jason Giambi hit that low, real-life managers and fantasy owners can deal with it, because these guys take walks, get on base and hit for power. Francoeur did none of this. He was bad, even earning a brief demotion to Double-A Mississippi. He did well there, of course, getting seven hits in 13 at-bats, then came back to the Braves and resumed underachieving. I watched him somewhat regularly, and he just kept flailing away at outside pitches. When he did hit the ball, it generally resulted in an ordinary infield grounder. The fly balls Francoeur used to hit just didn't happen at near the same rate as he normally produced.
The Braves have reason to be patient with Francoeur, still a terrific right fielder, to see whether he can regain his confidence and rebound at the plate. However, fantasy owners aren't likely to be as kind. We don't project Francoeur to reach 100 RBIs, obviously taking the wait-and-see approach with a player so prone to ups and downs, but we should remember this: He's 25 years old. He has ability. I can't explain how he went from solid to awful in such a short time, but he's not the first baseball player to have an unexplainably poor campaign and rebound. Mike Lowell was brutal in 2005, and two seasons later he knocked in 120 Red Sox teammates. Francoeur is going to hit in a run-producing spot for Atlanta, most likely fifth or sixth after Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, and either just before or just after first baseman Casey Kotchman. Free swinger or not, he will, we should assume, hit better than the startling .192 he did with runners in scoring position.
In reality, Francoeur's ESPN projection of a .266 batting average, 18 home runs and 90 RBIs is a bounce-back season in itself, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he tops these numbers and gets back to the direction his career path was headed. Eighteen and 90 doesn't get Francoeur into our top 70 outfielders, but it really should. One bad year, people, one bad year! I'm not calling for Francoeur to hit those 30 home runs we expected a year ago, but I'd sure rather take a chance on someone who just appears to need a confidence boost and a bit of mechanical fixing at the plate, someone who hasn't lost that bat speed, as opposed to what happened with someone like former teammate Andruw Jones, now working off a minor-league invite with the Texas Rangers. Don't give up on Francoeur yet -- the best could still be yet to come.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.