Braves' Francoeur feels reborn at 25

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The hands are back. The hips are coiled. The head is down. The ball is out there, somewhere.

"All I have to do from here," he says, "is spin on my back foot."

And then Jeff Francoeur blows his empty hands through the strike zone, which at this moment, extends from about the grocery cart/laundry basket to the trash can/spittoon.

He looks up in a busy Atlanta Braves clubhouse.

"All winter long I've read where we need a right-handed power bat," he says. "I know where that big right-handed bat has been. It's right here."

He means himself, of course.

It is coming up on noon Saturday in Braves camp, a couple days after Ken Griffey Jr. went running off to Seattle, an outcome Braves management ultimately will be satisfied with. Still, over a winter that allowed their third consecutive postseason miss, everything the Braves became involved in turned epic.

They didn't get Rafael Furcal, Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, Griffey or, amazingly, John Smoltz.

They did get three starters – Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami – four if you count Tom Glavine. They have not found a platoon-mate for left fielder Matt Diaz (that was going to be Griffey) or the right-handed bat that hounded Francoeur all winter, but they are talking to the Yankees about Xavier Nady (Chipper Jones' preference, he said Saturday) and Nick Swisher, and spring training will be long enough to accommodate further roster adjustments.

General manager Frank Wren is wary of Nady's cost in a trade and in salary ($6.6 million). So despite Jones' lobbying, that may go undone as well, though if the Braves stay the course it'll probably get heart-rending first.

"It's been frustrating, I can tell you that," Jones said.

Assuming the Braves can pitch on the front and back ends (and there's a chance Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan, Bobby Cox assured, might all be a go in April), the Braves need to reach for more offense and turn again to Francoeur, who once hit everything and now, at 25, needed all of a winter to remake his swing. The old swing had run him into a .239 batting average and .294 on-base percentage in more than 600 plate appearances last season, along with 11 home runs, one each in the months of July, August and September.

In Francoeur's third full season, every number was more abominable than the last. He batted .203 with men on base, .192 when they were in scoring position and .182 with the bases loaded. He batted .210 against lefties. Lefties, imagine. In a couple years, he'd gone from a reputed bad-ball hitter to a guy pitchers never had to threw a strike to.

Cox was kind enough to leave him in the fifth and sixth places in the order often enough so he scraped together 71 RBIs. More often, the game found him, and then went on without him.

"He came up in a lot of big spots last year," Jones said.

So Francoeur, the local kid who'd grown to 6-foot-4 and into a Braves uniform and had hardly ever failed at anything, failed hard.

"My first 2½ years," he says, "they were a fairy tale. Then, the way I look at it, last year was what it was. I never in a million years thought I'd have to go through it."

He decided to own it, the whole season, every rotten plate appearance, every runner left out there, every bad and rash and desperate decision. He packed up and spent three days in Dallas, where he reworked a swing that had come apart. He wanted contact and he wanted to go gap to gap and he wanted to stop guessing, because his mind was more fouled up than his mechanics.

The instructor is well known, but Francoeur, still young and kind, asked he not be named, because of the respect he holds for the Braves' hitting coach, Terry Pendleton.

"That was the toughest part, telling TP," he says.

Francoeur showed up to camp a week early. Since then, he's worn out the tees, pitching machines, batting-practice pitchers and his own cheeks, he's smiling so hard. He's told Cox he wants to lead the team in spring at-bats, and spring miles.

"Nobody was looking forward to having the season over more than me," he says. "But then, nobody was looking forward to February more than me."

Well, everyone will assume the best. That's what February is for. Even Chipper Jones told him it all looked pretty good.

"And I love Chipper, don't get me wrong," Francoeur says, "but he's tough to get a compliment out of. He expects better out of me."

Jones shrugged. He's got a cold or a flu or something and his old body is feeling the first few days of camp.

"He took it personally last year," Jones said. "He went out and made some good adjustments. Now, until you face live bullets, you don't know."

Here's the thing: Francoeur knows. Maybe it's youth. Maybe he's just so darned tired of failing he'll believe anything. Maybe it all scared him into working harder than he'd ever thought he'd have to.

Either way, there'd be no telling Francoeur otherwise.

"I'm ready to get out in the games, see what happens," he says, his hands high, the ball out there somewhere. "I'm going to be a completely different player."