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For better or for worse, Francoeur back in right for Royals

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at 3:19 p.m.

— This might surprise you.

There is strong commiseration from one player in the Royals’ clubhouse for those who slammed the club for trading mega-prospect Wil Myers in December to Tampa Bay because it left no viable alternative to Jeff Francoeur in right field.

That player is Jeff Francoeur.

“The criticism this offseason,” he said, “when we traded Wil — why the heck did we do that? — I sit there and say, ‘As a fan, looking from the outside, I’d lead that criticism.’ For fans, looking from the outside, I don’t blame them.

“I had a terrible year. Last year was so disappointing for me in so many different ways. First, obviously, the team and the way we performed after having expectations. Then myself. I just never did it. Never.”

This shouldn’t surprise you.

Francoeur is vowing a big comeback year after sabermetricians — and some fans — dubbed him the worst everyday player in baseball.

“The thing that keeps me positive,” he said, “is I know I’ve had good years. I’ve hit 30 home runs. I’ve driven in 100 runs. I’ve hit .290. I know I can do it. It’s a matter, for me, of being able to be consistent.

“I’m at that age, 29, where I should be getting into my prime. Not going the other way. That has fueled me and driven me a lot this off-season, and it’s been a good drive.”

It isn’t just talk.

Francoeur took it to heart when Ryan Stoneberg, the club’s strength-and-conditioning coach, delivered a sharp late-season critique on the need “to get your (backside) back in the weight room. You need to get to work and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

The search for the proper off-season approach led Francoeur to teammate Alex Gordon, whose stringent year-round regimen is unrelenting but — check the numbers — verifiably effective.

Gordon willingly played wingman.

“Frenchy started right away in the off-season,” he said. “Usually he rests a little bit, but he started right away because he was motivated. I was talking to him almost every day about his workouts.

“It worked both ways. We motivated each other in the off-season, and you can see the results. He looks good.”

It wasn’t easy.

“What’s great,” Francoeur said, “is he’d text me a bunch and stay on me. That was big for me to have someone do that. (Atlanta catcher) Brian McCann has always been probably my best friend in the game, but Gordo has become that guy for me.

“He’s someone I can lean on and confide in. That’s nice to have.”

The toughest point in all of this? That question produces a pure Francoeur-esque anecdote about his wife, Catie, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child. When she craved burgers, Francoeur lamented, he couldn’t join in. He could only eat fruit.

“I asked Catie,” he said, “‘Why couldn’t you do this last off-season?’”

Francoeur related this story last week — and it got out on Twitter. Catie responded by having the clubhouse catered the next day by the local Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurant — with a note posted that everything was courtesy of “Francoeur’s Fat Wife.”

Game, set and match to Catie Francoeur. The husband knew he’d been beaten even as, smile in place, he declared: “You know what? My wife, she gets it.”

Even so, the effect of having fewer burgers is noticeable even to the casual eye. Francoeur said it helped trim his body fat from 15 percent to 10 percent — albeit, still roughly twice what Gordon registers — while maintaining the same weight.

Francoeur also worked to strengthen his legs and offers a hat tip to some of those among his legion of detractors. He not only admits he pays attention to critics — a rare-enough thing — but he said he often weighs their criticism.

“I want to know what people say,” he said. “Not to prove them wrong for beating me up, but there might be something I think I can work on. I heard some people say that I looked a little slow last year in the outfield.

“I went back and watched some film and you know what? I did. I don’t think my legs were where they needed to be last year. I don’t think I was strong enough. I took a step back and said, ‘You know what? They’re right.’”

There are limits.

“Now as far as people just wanting to rip on you,” he said, “well, I work as hard as anybody. People around me know that. But overall, I want to take that criticism, accept it and let it drive me to be a better baseball player.

“I don’t take it as, ‘this person hates me.’ If he’s a true fan, he’s going to want me to have a good year to help this team win. Oh, yeah, every once in a while you read something, and it’s like, ‘Screw them.’ But I’m a fan, too. I understand it.

“Someone asked me if I feel pressured. I don’t feel pressured, but I know I’ve got to produce this year. And I will. I’m very confident that I will. You do that, you shut people up and then you just go out and play.”

That’s the core issue, isn’t it: Can Francoeur still play?

Can he resurrect the player who batted .285 in 2011 with 47 doubles, 20 homers and 87 RBIs; the guy the Royals rewarded with a two-year deal for $13.5 million? Or is he the bust who last year cratered to .235 with 25 fewer extra-base hits and 38 fewer RBIs?

The Royals are betting on the comeback.

“He’s done it before,” manager Ned Yost said. “He had a rough year last year. There are a lot of players who go through their careers who have rough years. You just don’t jettison them. He’s got the ability to bounce back.

“He’s a proven major-league producer. He had a great year for us the year before. He worked as hard as anybody in the off-season, and he’s come to camp both physically and mentally ready to bounce back. I think he will.”

The unspoken view is Francoeur has, roughly, two months to do that bouncing back. If not, the Royals will consider alternatives. He knows that.

“I can’t afford to go out there for 300 at-bats and just suck,” Francoeur said. “If so, they should (pull the plug). That’s the way this game goes.”

Many critics question whether general manager Dayton Moore will ever be willing to quit on Francoeur whatever the evidence.

Moore helped sign Francoeur as a first-round pick while working in Atlanta in 2002. He then signed Francoeur as a free agent after the 2010 season and made the decision to deal Myers for much-needed pitching.

It is telling, perhaps, that while Moore also expresses the expectation Francoeur will have a bounce-back year, he suggested any evaluation wouldn’t simply be made on the numbers.

“He can’t have a year like last year,” Moore said, “but I’m confident he is going to have a very good year. I know he’s going to show up every day to play. He’s going to bring a presence and a winning attitude to our team.

“He doesn’t have to be the guy. He just has to do something every single day that helps us win games. That’s what I expect Jeff Francoeur to do with his attitude, with his defense, getting the big hit, going first to third and picking players up.

“He doesn’t have to carry the team. He just needs to do something to help the team win every single night, and it can be done in a variety of ways.”

Francoeur again tinkered with his swing in the off-season. One benefit of his new workout approach, he believes, is it enables him to use a heavier bat, which he contends will aid in maintaining a more-direct swing.

“I’m using a 35-33 now,” he said, “up from a 34-31½. I’ve jumped up quite a bit, but I feel like it’s helped me not wrap it back there (around the head) and making me long to the ball.

“Now, I’m just going straight back instead of turning. I think these are little things, but I’m a repetition guy. Billy (Butler) can just roll of bed and hit. I need the repetition. I need to feel it. So every day, I need to do the same thing.

“That’s why you watch Gordo, and he’s the perfect guy. He’s the same guy every day, and I’ve got on that plan. I feel he’s going to make me a lot better baseball player.”

Francoeur is, traditionally, a slow starter in spring games, but he is putting a priority this spring on reversing that trend as the Royals move through the early days of their Cactus League schedule.

“I’m coming out raking,” he vowed. “No doubt. Now, I might hit .100 this spring, but I’ll be ready. Here’s the deal: I heard Lance Berkman say that his best year was a year when he hit .400 in spring and carried it over into the season.

“I’m so excited to get out there and see where I’m at and put together a good year. This is the first year I can’t wait for spring games. The best way to erase bad memories is to get out there and play.”

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