LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – For the first time since 2009, Jeff Francoeur will be in a Braves uniform on opening day.
Minutes before a Tuesday noon deadline, the Braves purchased the veteran outfielder’s contract Tuesday and informed Francoeur that he would be on the opening-day roster.
“Frenchy earned it,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “Every step of the way he came in here and played well. He did everything we hoped he would do this spring.”
The pride of Parkview High was a Sports Illustrated cover boy as a Braves rookie in 2005. Francoeur, 32, has taken a circuitous route back to the Braves after being traded to the Mets during the 2009 season.
He was among the group of Article XX (B) free agents under baseball’s labor agreement. The status is for major-league free agents on minor-league contracts, and it meant Francoeur had to be told of his opening-day roster status five days before the major league season began.
Francoeur signed a minor league contract two days before position players reported to spring training and has played well, hitting .327 (16-for-49) with four walks, seven strikeouts and a .389 on-base percentage. He was 4-for-7 with an RBI double in his past two games including a game-tying double off the bench Monday.
Francoeur was on the Braves’ trip to Sarasota to face the Orioles Tuesday night.
His contract included a $1 million salary if he made the major-league roster, and the opportunity to make up to another $1 million in incentives.
The Braves’ final position-player roster decision was thought to be between Francoeur and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, with Michael Bourn ($14 million salary) expected to have the other backup outfield job. But Coppolella said nothing was set yet.
“There’s a lot of ways this can go, too, it’s not like a certain person is out by this, just Frenchy is in,” Coppolella said. “We feel he is one of our 25 best.”
There’s always the possibility the Braves could keep Bourn and Bonifacio and send down another player such as Jace Peterson, who still has minor league options. That seems unlikely, as manager Fredi Gonzalez has indicated Peterson is still the primary second baseman, but the Braves could play Kelly Johnson and Gordon Beckham at second base.
All that remains to be sorted out, but the Braves know Francoeur is on the roster.
Nicknamed “Frenchy,” the amiable Francoeur remains popular among Braves fans and has been regarded as a terrific teammate at every minor league and major league stop in his career.
The Article XX (B) free-agent provision allows teams to offer a $100,000 retention bonus to those players if they’d like to send them to the minor leagues, but Francoeur had already told the Braves he wouldn’t accept a minor league assignment.
He would’ve instead exercised his right to opt out of his contract and become a free agent looking for another big-league job. But Francoeur had made it clear that he wanted to stay with the Braves, and he played well enough for team officials to make the decision.
He gives the Braves some needed right-handed power off the bench — all four of his extra-base hits (three doubles, one homer) this spring came in 20 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
Switch-hitting Bonifacio has a .271 average (13-for-48) with four extra-base hits, three walks, 16 strikeouts and a .314 OBP this spring. Against lefties, he’s 5-for-23 with a homer. Bonifacio has a $1.25 million guaranteed salary.
Though he was signed to compete for a backup corner-outfield and pinch-hitting role, Francoeur showed in recent weeks that he can play a serviceable center field. Starting center fielder Ender Inciarte and backup Bourn are left-handed hitters.
Francoeur was a two-sport star at Parkview High School and a Clemson football recruit before signing with the Braves as a first-round draft pick in 2002.
He hit .300 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs in just 70 games in 2005 to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting in 2005 and played nearly five seasons with the Braves, including consecutive 100-RBI seasons, before being traded to the Mets for Ryan Church in 2009.
A .261 career hitter with 153 home runs and a .722 OPS in 11 seasons, Francoeur bounced back from a year at Triple-A El Paso (Padres) in 2014 to have 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. He was 11-for-30 (.367) with 11 RBIs as a pinch-hitter, a role he’ll fill plenty with the Braves.
“We don’t like to bring guys into spring training with his service time and background if he doesn’t have some kind of shot at making the team,” Coppolella said. “He wasn’t a dead-cinch lock for the team, but we thought he had a chance, and he made the most of that chance.”