When the Royals signed Jeff Francoeur this off-season, many fans were up in arms. After a solid first three seasons in the Majors, Francoeur’s production tailed off the last three years. Francoeur’s propensity to strike out a lot and walk very little looked even worse when his other numbers declined. As a result, there were many who questioned why the Royals would give a one-year deal worth $2.5 million to Francoeur. He hasn’t helped his cause this spring, going 4 for 38 in 15 games. Yet, it seems like Francoeur’s spot as the everyday rightfielder is intact.
Today, vs. the Indians in Surprise, the Royals put Francoeur at the DH spot as a way to try and get him going (the DH usually “plays” the entire game, enabling him to get 4 or 5 plate appearances). They also started Lorenzo Cain in right, which could be a harbinger of things to come. The Royals like Cain and would like to find a way to get him in the lineup everyday. However, since he has options and Gregor Blanco, Mitch Maier and Alex Gordon don’t, there’s a very good chance Cain will begin the season at AAA Omaha. But, if any member of the projected starting outfield of Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Francoeur struggle, Cain will get a chance to play every day. So, Cain starting in right doesn’t necessarily mean he’s about to unseat Francoeur, but it shows the Royals want to give themselves more options. Putting Cain in right could also serve as a wake-up call to Francoeur, letting him know the Royals won’t be hamstrung if he doesn’t get it done at the plate.
Regardless, I think all the hand-wringing over the signing of Francoeur and, to a lesser extent Cabrera, is unnecessary. The most important thing to remember is that both deals were for one year. As a result, there is minimal risk; if Francoeur struggles for the first 2-3 months of the season, there’s no reason to keep him in the lineup. But, if he hits well, Francoeur becomes a potential candidate for a trade and a guy you might be able to flip for a fringe prospect or two. Last year’s free-agent signing of Rick Ankiel was panned and his time with the Royals was marred by injury, yet trading him (along with Kyle Farnsworth) helped Kansas City get prospect Tim Collins, who is close to winning a bullpen job with the Royals to start the season.
What matters most when the Royals sign free agents is whether the signee is taking at-bats away from a young player who should be getting a shot. You could argue Cabrera’s presence takes away at-bats for Cain but the trade for Cain came after Cabrera was signed and I doubt Cabrera is signed otherwise. Plus, there are always injuries or other moves, so I think Cain will still wind up getting at least 400 at-bats this season and get a chance to show what he can do on an everyday basis. If Cain doesn’t get 400 at-bats, it won’t be because Francoeur was kept in the lineup even though he wasn’t getting it done.