LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Frenchy is coming home.
The Braves signed right fielder Jeff Francoeur to a minor league contract that includes an invitation to spring training, where the former Sports Illustrated cover boy and ballyhooed member of the 2005 “Baby Braves” rookie class will try to make the team he last played for in 2009.
Francoeur, 32, a former two-sport star at Parkview High and Clemson football recruit, played nearly five seasons with the Braves, including consecutive 100-RBI seasons, before being traded to the Mets in 2009.
He’s a .261 career hitter with 153 homee runs and a .722 OPS in 11 seasons, and had a solid season in a part-time role with the Phillies in 2015, batting .258 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs in 343 at-bats. Many in the Phillies organization wanted to re-sign him, but ultimately no offer was made.
“We are excited to bring Frenchy back home and he will have a tremendous opportunity here,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “He brings leadership, experience, makeup, and most importantly, talent.”
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Francoeur was expected to arrive in the Orlando area on Tuesday night and report to camp on Wednesday, the official reporting date for Braves pitchers and catchers. The first full-squad workout is Thursday.
He hit .367 (11-for-30) as a pinch-hitter last season, and his 11 pinch-hit RBIs were one shy of the majors lead. Though he’s a right-handed hitter, Francoeur hit .264 with 10 homers and a .477 slugging percentage in 202 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitchers in 2015, compared to .248 with three homers and .368 slugging in 141 PAs versus lefties.
Never one to draw a walk, Francoeur had only 13 walks with a .286 on-base percentage in 2015, and has a .304 career OBP. But he can provide power off the bench and has long been known as a tremendous clubhouse presence and great teammate.
The Braves already had a bit of a logjam of veteran outfielders, with Nick Markakis entrenched in right field, and Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher having no obvious place to get at-bats behind newcomer Ender Inciarte and Hector Olivera, who are penciled in for center field and left field, respectively. The Braves could trade Bourn and/or Swisher if they can find a team to take even a portion of their large salaries; both are in the final year of contracts.
Francoeur, a former Gold Glove Award winner (2007), has played almost exclusively in right field throughout his career, but does have 38 games (24 starts) in left field including 20 games (10 starts) last season for Philadelphia. He also made a two-inning relief appearances as a pitcher for the Phillies after pitching a few times in the minor leagues.
A Braves first-round draft pick in 2002 out of Parkview, Francoeur reached the majors in July 2005 in a Braves rookie class that also included Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson, who is back for his third stint with the Braves this season.
It was Francoeur who got the most attention among those rookies in 2005, when he had a remarkable start to his career that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was dubbed “The Natural.” He hit .300 with 14 homers and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing just 70 games that year.
Francoeur hit .260 with 29 homers and 103 RBIs in 2006 in his first full season in the majors, then hit .290 with 19 homers and 105 RBIs in 2007. But after totaling 48 homers and 208 RBIs in a two-season span he slipped to a .239 average with 11 homers and 71 RBIs in 2008, his last full season with the Braves.
His best season after leaving the Braves came with the Royals in 2011, when Francoeur hit .285 with 20 homers, 87 RBIs and a career-high 22 stolen bases — the only time he stole as many as nine bases in a season.
Francoeur played for four major league teams — Royals, Giants, Padres, Phillies — in the past three seasons, and had just 10 games and 28 plate appearances in the majors with San Diego in 2014 before his 2015 resurgence with the Phillies.