Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Francoeur - Church Trade - A Different Perspective

I have interrupted my day by day journal of last week's baseball trip to discuss the one for one trade the Mets and Braves did yesterday. If you don't know, the Braves sent Jeff Francoeur (pictured to the left in the on deck circle) to the Mets in exchange for Ryan Church. When I read on Rotoworld the Mets-Braves trade last night shortly before the Mets game, I was kind of stunned by Rotoworld's assessment of the trade. Rotoworld noted "Church was seemingly in Jerry Manuel's doghouse, but he'll give the Braves immediate offensive improvement over Francoeur. It seems like an unnecessary gamble by Omar Minaya. Both players are under arbitration control for two more years."

Then if that wasn't enough, ESPN's Rob Neyer, a terrific writer who I traded e-mails with occasionally when he first started out, wrote on his ESPN column "The Braves got a decent hitter and fielder who bats left-handed, and thus can platoon (or semi-platoon) with Matt Diaz in right field. The Mets got ... what, exactly? If you figure it out, drop a line to Jerry Manuel. He's going to need all the help he can get with this one."

After reading the two columns, my first immediate reaction was "Do they see a different Ryan Church than I do?" Church, pictured here scoring against the Pirates last week, played two years for the Mets. The numbers are simply not that good. In 2008, in 319 at bats, he had 12 home runs, 49 RBIs, a .276 batting average and a OPS of .785. This year in 255 at bats, Church was hitting .280 with 2 home runs, 22 RBIs and a OPS of .707. His split against lefthanders is not impressive at all. In 339 career at bats against lefthanders, Church was hitting .245 with 7 HRs, 54 RBIs and an OPS of .683. His numbers against lefthanders so far this season were very weak - in 48 at bats, a .167 batting average, no home runs, 4 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .188. At Citi Field, Church was plain awful this year hitting .216 with 1 HR, 10 RBIs and a OPS of .576.

Granted Church's career OPS against righthanders is .822 which is solid, but not spectacular. However, two more things of note. He has only had one season so far in his career where he has had over 400 at bats, which was in 2007. This is due in large part to Church having spent the better part of his two years with the Mets on the DL injured due to concussion related syndrome last year and a pulled hamstring this year. Also, Church turns 31 in October. So to expect Church to improve at a point where he is at his peak age is expecting a lot (in other words, most likely he will not improve).

For those to say that Church is an improvement over Francoeur, the numbers surely don't show it. And for Neyer to say potentially that Church can "semi-platoon" with Matt Diaz, well there's something Neyer has left out. When I was at the Braves-Nationals game in D.C. last Friday, the Nationals had lefthander Ross Detwiler pitching. Both Francoeur and Matt Diaz were in the starting lineup. Francoeur was in his normal right field position and Diaz was playing left field. That's because Diaz ALREADY platoons with the left hand hitting Garrett Anderson. Okay, who is going to platoon with Church? Greg Norton? Or is Anderson now going to play full time? The latter may be the case since Anderson against lefthanders is hitting .316 in 59 at bats but with no home runs and an OPS of .725. But Anderson is 37 years old and previously spent a lot of time at DH the past two years with the Angels (he was a DH for 59 of the 141 games he played last season). So playing Anderson everyday might not be so wise. And by the way, the Braves currently don't have a right hand hitting outfielder outside of Diaz and Greg Norton, who is also not a natural outfielder by trade (and rarely plays to boot). Eek!

Which gets to my next point. Playing someone like Church, a definite platoon left handed hitter requires that you have another right hand hitting player to platoon with, often a lesser hitter and often a lesser fielder. With the Mets, you had a cast of characters from Fernando Tatis (an .OPS of 700 and has hit into eleven double plays in 192 at bats) to Nick Evans (an OPS of 723 in 46 at bats this year and an OPS of 706 in 119 at bats last season). Neither player is a natural outfielder. Just to note this season, when Church sat, Tatis or Evans would play left field and Gary Sheffield would play right field and Sheffield of course was mostly a DH the last few seasons in Detroit. So the Mets outfield got much weaker when facing a lefthander. And as many of you know, the Mets don't need to get any weaker defensively.

So, yes, Jeff Francoeur has struggled mightily the past year and a half. Yes, in his two best seasons his OPS was .742 and .782. He is a better hitter against lefties (career .802 OPS vs. LH as opposed to .704 vs RH). But he plays everyday. You don't need a lesser player, who in the Mets case, wasn't a good outfielder, platooning with him. And defense is certainly not a question with Francoeur. Finally, he is 25 years old. I can't stress that enough. He is at least five years younger than Church and is an everyday player. Yes, he could definitely use some tutelage from Howard Johnson to get his numbers back to his 2007 season. But there is room and time for improvement. Francoeur is coming into his peak years. Church is already there and shown he is not up to the task.

So for those to look at first glance at the numbers and say Church is the better player than Francoeur, you really need to take a closer look. It's not just what Church gives you, it's what he doesn't give you. Is Francoeur a gamble? Absolutely. He may continue to hit in his current 1 1/2 year slump but there is hope that he will return to form. Church is a platoon player and will be for the rest of his career. And perhaps that's why the Mets took the gamble and traded for Francoeur. The current Jeff Francoeur makes the Mets simply better because he makes sure one lesser player isn't playing one out of every three days. And believe it or not, that makes a big difference. And again, there's always the chance that the 25 year old Francoeur will return to form or perhaps be better. That's better than the status quo and the Mets status quo isn't very good right now.

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