A look at free agent Jeff Francis

While Sandy Alderson showed his sense of humor in response to the Nationals signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal – “It makes some of our contracts look pretty good. That’s a long time and a lot of money. I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.” – he now has to show his baseball sense by signing the right bargain-basement free agent pitcher.

Earlier we profiled Jeremy Bonderman and Chris R. Young. Today let’s look at Jeff Francis, a lefty who won 44 games from 2005-07 with the Colorado Rockies before being derailed by a shoulder injury which required surgery. Francis missed the entire 2009 season but came back to throw 104.1 IP in 2010.

Strengths

Francis established a career-high last year with a 47 percent ground ball rate. He was never a big strikeout pitcher and his average velocity of 87.2 mph was his highest since 2005 (88.5) and just a tick above his career average. Additionally, Francis established a career-best 1.98 BB/9 last year. Even playing half his games in Colorado, Francis did a good job limiting the home run ball. He had a 10.1 HR/FB rate in 2010, right in line with his 10.5 lifetime mark in the category.

While Francis had a poor year according to his 5.00 ERA, both his FIP (3.88) and xFIP (3.94) show a hurler who pitched much better than his results. He was hurt by a 64.5 LOB%, well below his lifetime 70.5 strand rate.

Weaknesses

Francis opened the 2010 season on the disabled list and went there again in mid-August due to shoulder tendinitis. When he came back a month later, he went just 11.2 IP in four games and had an 8.49 ERA.

And unlike most pitchers, Francis does not seem frightened by pitching in Colorado. Last year his home ERA (4.86) was lower than his road ERA (5.15), which is consistent with his lifetime totals. Fans should not expect a “bounce” in his numbers just by fact of not pitching in Coors Field.

In his best seasons, Francis’ changeup was perhaps his best pitch. After posting back-to-back seasons with a combined 20.9 runs above average with his change, last year it was a negative offering with a -1.0 Pitch Type Value.

Outlook

Most pundits agree that it takes two years to bounce back from shoulder surgery, if a pitcher is able to do it at all. Francis had his surgery in February of 2009, so he will pass the two-year mark this offseason. He seemed to be rounding into shape before landing on the disabled list last August. In his previous five starts, Francis was 2-1 with a 3.34 ERA with 3 BB and 28 Ks in 29.2 IP.

One thing to keep in mind is that Francis is somewhat similar to a pitcher that the Mets already have in Jonathon Niese. And unless Johan Santana recovers lost velocity with his last surgery, New York’s rotation could include three lefties without overpowering stuff if they sign Francis.

With the Mets apparently limited financially, Francis is the type of pitcher they will have to consider, one that had success previously but has struggled recently due to surgery. Francis seems a decent risk to deliver a 4.50 ERA, 150 IP type of season. There’s value to be had in that type of year, but that is probably the upside that Francis offers at this time.

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