SARASOTA, Fla. — His unceremonious exit via trade to the Mets in 2009. A year spent toiling for Triple-A El Paso at age 30. Not being re-signed by the Phillies despite a solid season in 2015. The minor league deal he had to settle for in February, two days before Braves position players reported.
Jeff Francoeur could smile as he reflected Tuesday, once the Braves told him he made their opening-day roster. The erstwhile Golden Boy from the 2005 “Baby Braves” is back where it began, a bench player now for the team that made him a 2002 first-round draft pick out of Parkview High School.
“I think for me it’s going to be really cool on Monday running out there back at Turner Field,” said Francoeur, 32, who will have a backup outfield and pinch-hitting role in the town where he was once such a phenom that Francoeur No. 7 jerseys could still be spotted around the ballpark six years after he left.
“Especially being the last year, I have so many great memories there (Turner Field). Not just playing, but as a kid going to watch. All the playoff games. Running out there Monday is going to be pretty cool.”
Francoeur wears No. 18 now, since No. 7 already was taken by infielder Gordon Beckham. But the number isn’t really important to the guy everyone knows as “Frenchy.” Being back with the Braves after earning a spot with his performance this spring, that was important.
It felt so good when manager Fredi Gonzalez told him, so satisfying, that Francoeur said he wouldn’t change much about the circuitous route he’s taken to get back to Atlanta if he had it to do all over again.
“No, not at all,” he said, before adding this qualifier: “There’s things you wish you could go back and do again, have a different attitude, try different things. But as far as how it’s ended up — what better chance to come back here now and play in my hometown?”
Braves officials including president of baseball operations John Hart and general manager John Coppolella let Francoeur know how much they admired how he’d stuck to it and got himself back to the majors after a year in Triple-A, then played well in a part-time and pinch-hitting role with the Phillies.
“He spent almost an entire year in Triple-A,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Sometimes that makes you make some changes.”
“That’s what meant a lot, listening to Hart and Coppy and those guys tell me that,” Francoeur said. “To grind it out back in El Paso, they have a lot of respect for me for that. … Going into the (2015) season there were still kind of doubts, I’m sure — what am I going to be able to do? But now to do what I did in that role, I’m not coming in here looking for 500 at-bats. I’m a totally different guy with a different mindset, and I enjoy that (role), I’m looking forward to it.”
He felt good about his chances of making the roster before the deadline, but wasn’t certain.
“In this business until it’s final you never know,” he said. “But I was excited when I got the call this morning to come on in and talk to them. It’s been great. And to share it with the family — I’ve gotten quite a few texts today. It’s been nice.”
He was given permission to drive to Tuesday’s game in Sarasota, and Francoeur was having such a good time singing and talking with those in his car that they failed to notice the warning signs on I-75 about a crash that had blocked lanes of the busy Florida highway. They sat in traffic in the rain for some time before making it to Ed Smith Stadium.
No worries. It’s been such a busy and rewarding six weeks, a traffic jam wasn’t going to dampen his spirits.
“I waited so long this winter (hoping for a major league contract),” he said. “Then it was like, well, it’s either except a minor league deal or don’t play. When I knew that I was like, you know what, I’ll put my head to the grindstone for five weeks and do what I can do. But it paid off.”
Francoeur was an Article XX (B) free agent under baseball’s labor agreement — a major-league free agent on minor-league contracts. As such, he had to be told of his opening-day status five days before the major league season began.
Braves officials met for much of Tuesday morning going over the roster, which won’t be announced until later this week or weekend. But the Francoeur decision had to be made Tuesday, and they were pleased he made it easier with his play.
He hit .327 (16-for-49) with four walks, seven strikeouts and a .389 OBP before Tuesday’s game against the Orioles.
“We gave him an opportunity to come to spring training and perform, and he’s done that,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a threat, a guy that can come off the bench and hit left-handed pitching. His track record as a pinch-hitter last year was really good. And he’s a great guy in the clubhouse, he’s going to have some presence, a lot of leadership. That’s good for us right now.”
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