TORONTO – The odds against the Toronto Blue Jays having another premium slugger fall into their hands must be astronomical.
They’ve already fluked into franchise cornerstones Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in recent years, the former acquired in a waiver deal with the Pirates as a stop-gap because Scott Rolen was fighting injury, the latter a salary dump forced upon them by the Reds as part of a trade that targeted Zach Stewart. Teams don’t make mistakes on those kinds of players very often.
Yet here’s Juan Francisco, released on March 24 by Milwaukee and signed by the Blue Jays to a minor-league deal a week later, sitting with a .963 OPS through 129 plate appearances, exactly halfway to his production totals of 18 home runs and 48 RBIs last year with the Brewers and Braves.
The Blue Jays, who tried unsuccessfully to acquire him from Atlanta last June, have been so impressed that they decided to move defensively spectacular third baseman Brett Lawrie over to second against right-handed pitchers in order to keep Francisco in the lineup at the hot corner.
All of which leads to this question: have the Blue Jays really gotten lucky a third time?
“It could happen,” says Encarnacion. “With the talent he has, he just needs a team to give him the opportunity to play, to give him a chance, because he’s got power, he can hit, and he can play good defence. He needs to get confidence, like me and Jose. They let us play and you see the numbers we have right now. He needs the same thing, and I think he’ll have a great year.”
Whether or not Francisco is able to follow in the footsteps of Bautista and Encarnacion by making good on his untapped potential, the Blue Jays appear intent on giving him the type of opportunity he never had in Cincinnati, where he started his career, Atlanta or Milwaukee.
Raw power is becoming an increasingly rare commodity around the game and the 26-year-old from Bonao, Dominican Republic, features as much of it as anyone. During the Blue Jays’ trip to Pittsburgh last month, for instance, teammates and club officials kept an extra close eye on his batting practice sessions to see if he’d send one 440-plus feet into the Allegheny River beyond the right-field seats (he didn’t, but dropped jaws with several rockets to centre).
Still, raw power alone will only go so far, and a deeper look at Francisco’s numbers suggests that he’s becoming a smarter hitter.
So far this season, he’s swinging at just 28.4 per cent of pitches thrown to him out of the strike zone, an improvement of about 10 percentage points on his career average. He’s also swinging at fewer strikes – 65.1 per cent down, down from 71.5 per cent – which indicates he’s hunting pitches he’s more likely to hit hard.
His walk rate is also better, up 3.3 per cent to 10.9, all positive indicators that offer hope his gains can be sustained, to some degree. A strikeout rate of 34.1 per cent that’s right around his career norms remains worrying – but big swings can also mean big misses, and for now that hasn’t hindered his production.
“I have changed,” Francisco tells Sportsnet in interview interpreted by third base coach Luis Rivera. “Now that I’m a little more experienced, I’m learning the game … I listen when people talk to me about baseball and about situations. I’m slowing down the game, and I feel a lot better now.”
Playing key roles on that front are his relationship with Encarnacion – who first met Francisco while speaking to young Latin prospects when both were in the Reds system, and encouraged him to sign with the Blue Jays in April – and the work they did together this past off-season.
“I spent a month hitting with Edwin and Robinson Cano with their coach, Luis Mercedes,” says Francisco. “I got a lot of information from Edwin and Cano about approaches at the plate, knowing Cano is also a left-handed hitter, what to look for in what counts. It helped me through spring training, my approach was better at the plate and I carried that into the season.
“That’s the reason why I’m feeling better at the plate and swinging at better pitches. I’m waiting for a pitch to hit rather than swinging at every pitch, being a little more selective. Doing that, my average is going to go up and everything is going to be better.”
Mercedes, whose prompting led Encarnacion to adopt a two-handed finish to his swing before his breakout 2012 season, also made some mechanical tweaks with Francisco, who used to stand more upright at the plate with his right leg open. Now his feet are even and his body is lower, allowing him to load his hands in a way that shortens his swing path and gets him through the ball better.
Then there’s the comfort factor, as Francisco chose the team he most wanted to join after the Brewers cut him loose in the spring when they opted for a Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon at first base.
Asked how Toronto is working for him, he replies: “I feel great here, I feel like it’s my home.”
Francisco actually thought he was bound for the Blue Jays last June when the Braves designated him for assignment. But the teams couldn’t work out a deal and instead Atlanta sent him to Milwaukee for minor-league pitcher Thomas Keeling.
This spring they finally got their man.
“I made him sign here because I knew he’d get an opportunity to play,” says Encarnacion. “He had a couple more teams he could sign with but we are very close, so he listens a lot to me.”
Says Francisco: “As soon as I was put on waivers, I got in contact with Edwin, talked to him about my situation, Edwin called Alex (Anthopoulos), they were in communication and figured out a way to bring me into the organization. So Edwin is the main reason I came here.”
The trick, of course, is in hitting enough to stay. Since his promotion April 19 from triple-A Buffalo when Adam Lind hit the disabled list, Francisco has certainly done that. Maybe that performance is an outlier, or maybe it’s a sign he’s becoming the latest slugger to join the Blue Jays and really figure things out.