The other day, I talked about a trade the Braves made involving Juan Cruz where the Braves bet on potential. Eight years ago, the Braves bet on one tool. But holy crap, was it an amazing tool when the big third baseman was able to use it. Unfortunately, Juan Francisco could smash home runs with the best of them, but couldn’t do much else and his career came to a close after just 404 games.
Francisco played more games with the Braves than any other team and no team presented him a better chance to secure a long-term home. It didn’t happen, of course. But let’s look back at who the Braves were taking a chance on.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in May of 2004, Francisco didn’t make his professional debut until the summer of ’06 with the Gulf Coast League Reds. He flashed just a little of the power he would become known for, but in 2007, that changed quickly. In 135 games at A-ball, Francisco blasted 25 jacks to lead the Midwest League. He finished just three ribbies short of the RBI title as well. He even swiped a dozen bases. That season represented half of his total steals at the minor league level.
The following year, he kept hitting dingers, adding another 23 to his career total. That was just six off the pace of the league-lead. It was still 11 more homers than a teammate, Todd Frazier, hit. After the season, he went to the Dominican Winter League and hit another 11 homers, this time in just 40 games. It propelled him to a 1.065 OPS. Francisco was no top prospect, but his power was certainly exciting. As too was his age. At 21, Francisco was a little young for the Florida State League in 2008. He’d be really young for the majors in 2009, but he’d get there, too.
Heading to Carolina to open the ’09 campaign, Francisco crushed another 22 jacks before adding a handful of homers in Triple-A Louisville. He’d spend the second half of September in Cincinnati, going 9-for-21 with a homer in 14 games. That’s a 28-homer campaign at the age of 22. Not just that, he was now in the major league picture and the Reds were pretty excited about what Francisco could do.
Sadly for the robust third baseman, finding at-bats would be a difficult thing. In 2009, the Reds acquired Scott Rolen from the Blue Jays. As 2010 loomed, they were pretty set at third. Across the diamond, Joey Votto was starting his third full season in the majors. He’d end up winning the MVP in 2010.
Though he played a little left field in the minors, nobody was anxious to watch Francisco patrol a major league outfield. With Votto and Rolen ahead of him, Francisco was shit out of luck. In 2010, he’d spend an injury-limited year – mostly at Louisville – though he did play in 36 games in the bigs. Often, he was used as a pinch-hitting threat. He also continued to crush, hitting 18 homers in Triple-A and batting .273 in 55 at-bats in the majors.
The next season, 2011, should have gone another way for Francisco. Though he made the opening day roster, with Votto and Rolen ahead of him, playing meaningful innings was nearly impossible. By the middle of the month, he went on the injured list. It was terrible timing because a few days later, Rolen also hit the then-DL. Also unfortunately for Francisco, Rolen returned to the majors around the time Francisco also got healthy. With nowhere to go, Francisco got shifted to Triple-A. And in Triple-A, Francisco would stay.
This was despite the fact that Rolen’s season ended on July 20. The 38-36 Reds, 2.5 games out of first place, relied instead on 36-year-old career journeyman, Miguel Cairo and Frazier rather than bring Francisco back up for a real shot. To be fair, Cairo probably had one of the best seasons of his 17-year career (.742 OPS in 276 PA) while Frazier was the bigger prospect. Further, at the time Rolen hit the DL for good, Francisco was again on the shelf. He returned for a rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League on July 29 before coming back to Louisville on August 5. Nevertheless, it seemed like a good time to bring Francisco up to the majors instead of another four weeks in Triple-A. After all, by that time, the Reds were free-falling. They had a record of 54-57 and were 7.5 games out of the Central when Francisco returned to Louisville.
For his part, Francisco hit 15 homers when healthy for Louisville over 300 at-bats. He also slashed .307/.334/.540, including his final two hits as a member of the Louisville Bats on August 30. By September 1, he was finally back in the bigs. He would be featured prominently at third base over the final month as he received his opportunity to shine. And on September 12, he shined very brightly.
It was a nothing game between two also-rans as the Cubs visited the Great American Ball Park. Francisco had homered twice since his return. The Cubs quickly built a 3-0 lead against Dontrelle Willis, who you probably forgot pitched for the Reds. Rodrigo Lopez navigated through two hits in the first. In the second, Devin Mesoraco flew out to bring up Francisco. And…well, you kind of have to see it.
Franciso had a decent month of September, even though he didn’t hit another homer. In 22 games, including 17 starts, he slashed .270/.299/.514, adding seven doubles and a triple to his extra-base total.
The next spring, the Reds had a problem. The aging Rolen was again healthy. They also wanted to feature Frazier, who would finish third in the Rookie of the Year ballot that season. Once again, there was no room for Francisco. But now, he was out-of-options. Furthermore, he showed up to camp overweight and was still suffering the effects of a calf injury he had in winter ball, but didn’t do the best job rehabilitating. The Reds didn’t want to lose Francisco and get nothing in return. They needed to find him a home and get something for their flawed third baseman with power potential through the roof.
That’s when Frank Wren and the Braves came calling. The Braves had their own problem. Chipper Jones was entering his final season and Atlanta knew he would need rest frequently to get the most out of him. Martin Prado, the team’s starting left fielder, provided depth at third base, but Atlanta preferred keeping him in left field as often as possible.
Francisco was a perfect buy-low option. While it was a small sample size, Francisco was carrying a respectable .284/.331/.450 slash over 181 PA as a Red. Entering his Age-25 season, Francisco could spend a year as Chipper’s understudy and add power to the bench. After that, who knew? He just might stick around for the long haul.
It wasn’t a bad plan so on this day eight years ago, the Braves sent minor league righty, J.J. Hoover, to the Reds for Francisco.
What the Reds Got
The Reds didn’t do too badly here when you consider how little leverage they had with an out-of-options player they weren’t anxious to keep. To be clear, Hoover was certainly not one of Atlanta’s prized prospects. At the time, they had three consensus Top 50 prospects and all three were pitchers – Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado. That doesn’t include J.R. Graham and Sean Gilmartin, each from the 2011 draft, plus Zeke Spruill.
Hoover was more a member of the Graham/Gilmartin/Spruill group rather than the first group. That is to say that he was a good prospect. Maybe a #3 or #4 starter if everything went right. If it didn’t, he could still log innings as a reliever. Maybe even a good one.
A tenth-round pick in 2008, Hoover appeared in 12 games in Gwinnett the previous season before a pretty ugly run as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League. I remember Hoover the most from 2010 because I went to several Lynchburg Hillcats games that year. Seemingly every time they faced the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Hoover was on the mound when I was hoping to see Delgado.
After the trade, Hoover opened the season in Triple-A, but often made appearances in the majors. The Reds completed Hoover’s transition to a reliever that the Braves started the previous year. In 30 games in Triple-A, Hoover maintained a sparkling 1.22 ERA. He was nearly good in 28 appearances in the majors, carrying a 2.05 ERA in 30.2 innings.
Penciled in as an important part of the bullpen heading into 2013, Hoover backed up the Reds’ faith in him with a 2.86 ERA in 69 nicely-pitched ballgames. Follow-ups to his successful 2013 season ranged from meh-to-good-to-ugly. First, he had a 1-10 record out of the pen in 2014 with a 4.88 ERA, but the next year, he managed a 2.94 ERA in 57 games. However, the strikeouts were down, the walks were up, and in 2016, only bad things happened for Hoover in the majors. He pitched in 18 games, had a 13.50 ERA, and was sent back to Triple-A for most of the year.
Let go after 236 games with the Reds, Hoover went to Arizona. The strikeouts returned, but the control remained a problem. Also remaining a problem was homers. His great rookie season of 2013 was the last time he kept his HR/9 from climbing to 1.0 or above. Walks and homers won’t get you high-value innings and the Diamondbacks let Hoover go. He last appeared in the majors in two ballgames with the Twins in 2018, walking two and giving up a homer in an inning-and-a-third. His career ERA stands at 4.17 in 285 innings. Hoover spent last year getting crushed in Fresno as a member of the Nationals’ organization, allowing 26 homers in fewer than 100 innings. As of right now, he remains a free agent.
What the Braves Got
In Francisco, Atlanta hoped to buy low and get paid off handsomely in the end. Well, at least they bought low.
Francisco played 93 games with Atlanta in 2012 and stepped into the left-handed batter’s box 205 times. As expected, his numbers against lefties were abysmal as he finished the season with a .468 OPS in 40 PA when facing southpaws. On the bright side, though, he flashed big power against righties. Of his 11 doubles and nine homers, all but two doubles came against right-handed pitchers. That lead to an ISO of .232 if you ignore his work against lefties.
That was the good news. The bad news was that he couldn’t get on base. Nearly half of his hits were extra-base knocks. That’s good if you’ve hit 40 doubles and 40 homers, but not so good when you manage just 45 hits in 205 PA. Francisco, who never saw a pitch he didn’t like, only drew nine unintentional passes over the season. He was left off the roster for the 2012 Wild Card Game with Atlanta opting for veterans like Lyle Overbay and Jeff Baker. Francisco’s only playoff experience remains one at-bat in the 2010 NLDS against the Phils. It was Game One. Francisco grounded out to short. Roy Halladay went on to retire the next ten batters to finish off the no-hitter.
Francisco was brought back for 2013 and the Braves said he had a chance to beat out newly-acquired Chris Johnson for the starting third baseman job as Atlanta moved on without Chipper Jones. But it seemed a little hollow and not just because Johnson had 933 PA over the last two seasons while Francisco struggled to find playing time. Francisco was on a downward slope. Sure, when he hit ’em, he hit ’em far, but there were questions about his work ethic and especially his weight. Not to mention that he wasn’t exactly a gifted defender.
But for two months, the Braves gave Francisco a shot to stick. He played 38 times, including starting 20 games. Johnson clearly got more playing time as 34 of his 40 games played were starts. To be fair, both shared an equal amount of starts in May with Francisco starting most of the games over the first couple of weeks and taking a back seat to Johnson the rest of the way. With Atlanta no longer using Francisco and Ramiro Pena moving above him in the depth chart at third base, Atlanta ended the Juan Francisco Experiment on June 3, 2013, acquiring minor league arm Thomas Keeling from the Brewers.
A bit on Keeling before finishing up the look at Francisco. A lefty out of Oklahoma State who was plucked out of the 18th round in 2010, Keeling simply changed Southern League teams going from the Huntsville Stars to the Mississippi Braves. Keeling was a project arm who walked too many batters and also gave up far too many moonshots. He pitched 29 games down the stretch for the M-Braves, walking over a batter an inning. The next spring, he was released half-way through camp, ending his run with the system. He tried to stay in baseball, pitching ten times with Grand Prairie of the independent American Association in 2014, but his struggles to throw strikes only got worse.
But kids – this is why you get an education. Keeling graduated with a degree in finance and is now the Director of Financial Planning at Delos Capital Advisors in Dallas.
Let’s get back to Francisco. He finished up 2013 with Milwaukee, hitting 13 homers and posting a .733 OPS. But he failed to impress the next spring and was cut. A short while later, he got another shot, this time with Toronto. He continued to flash that mouth-watering power, slamming 16 dongs to go with 34 extra-base knocks in 320 PA. But as per usual, he failed to get on base, hitting a measly .220 with a .291 OBP.
Francisco would continue to find work. Briefly, the Red Sox had him in their system, but he never suited up for them. Tampa Bay in 2015 and Baltimore two years later both gave him a look, but both times, he was cut before ever playing an affiliated game. He briefly played in Japan in 2015 along with logging 41 games in the Mexican League following his release by the Orioles in 2017. Francisco is now best known for making noise in the Dominican Winter League. Still only 32, Francisco has belted 71 homers over parts of 13 years in offseason winter leagues – mostly the Dominican. He was scheduled to make his return to the Mexican League this season, but COVID-19 has put their season on hold as well.
Who Won The Deal?
It’s hard to say either team won this deal, but you might be surprised that according to fWAR, the Braves have the edge. During his 128-game run in Atlanta, Francisco finished with a 0.8 fWAR. Considering his career fWAR is 2.1, that’s a big chunk of his career value.
At first, the Reds were running away with this deal. Not only was Francisco gone by mid-June of 2013, but Hoover was also becoming a key reliever for the Reds. In his first two seasons, he accounted for 1.3 fWAR over 96.2 innings. Which…probably tells you all you need to know about what’s coming since Francisco still beat Hoover in fWAR. Over his next three years, Hoover had an fWAR of -1.3. It’s actually a little worse than that, to be honest. Closer to -1.35, but I don’t want to do any rounding so let’s give Hoover a big, fat 0 fWAR over five years with the Reds.
My quick match says 0.8 is better than 0.
But, to be honest, it’s tough to say the Reds didn’t get the better end of the deal. After all, at least they got one good season out of Hoover. By the numbers, it’s hard not to go with Francisco, but logically, Hoover gets my vote.
What do you think? Do you have fond memories of Francisco’s time in Atlanta?