Will Brewers regret letting Juan Francisco go?

Ryan Topp

Mar 3, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Juan Francisco (21) hits an RBI single against the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning at Maryvale Baseball Park. Photo: Image by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Will Brewers regret letting Juan Francisco go?

By Ryan Topp. CREATED Mar 24, 2014

On Saturday afternoon, Journal Sentinel scribe Todd Rosiak broke the news that first baseman Juan Francisco’s locker had been packed up. On Sunday morning, the team announced that returning Brewer Lyle Overbay had indeed made the team over Francisco, and that he would pair with right-handed slugger Mark Reynolds at first.

Thus ended the brief Juan Francisco era in Milwaukee, where he somehow managed to become nearly as polarizing a player as Rickie Weeks in less than a calendar year.

Francisco surely does have major holes in his game. His poor contact percentage led to both a lot of strikeouts and a very low batting average. He also made some truly dreadful plays defensively at first.

There seemed to be some sentiment that his mere presence on the team meant the Brewers were going back to the “bad old days” and those sorts of perceptions can be very hard to fight.

Supporters of Francisco are quick to point out that he possesses truly prodigious power, which isn’t as easy to find in the game today as it was a few years ago.

BaseballHeatMaps.com tracks and averages the combined distance of all fly balls and home runs, and Francisco was 10th in all of baseball last year. Most of those ahead of him on the list are stars of the game today.

Francisco has also steadily improved his walk percentage to the point where he was actually above average last year. That helps take quite a bit of the sting out of the high strikeout numbers, as it gives him another way to get on base besides putting the ball into play.

It also is important to note that Francisco was playing a new position for the first time last year, and was being asked to basically learn on the fly. He didn’t get an off season or spring training to take thousands of reps and to hone his skills digging out balls in the dirt, and it obviously showed.

He has deceptive athleticism for his size, though, and given time he surely would have improved quite a bit from the disaster that he was in 2013.

Francisco won’t turn 27 years old until June, so there is still some time for him to continue to improve. He’s also still pretty cheap.  He would have only made $1.35 million in 2014, or about $150,000 less than the Brewers will be paying Lyle Overbay this year.

It’s probably pretty unlikely that Francisco will ever become a true star. He doesn’t make enough contact and lacks any real useful skill other than his huge power to get to that level. He’s also probably never going to hit left handers well enough that teams won’t want to at least seek a platoon partner for him.

The problem is that Lyle Overbay just doesn’t really offer all that much more in the present and, at 37 years of age, doesn’t figure to be getting better.

Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection system liked Francisco to beat Overbay’s batting average by 20 points and his slugging by over 50 points. Those are some pretty big gaps, though Overbay was projected to have a slightly better on-base percentage than Francisco.

Overbay comes in with the reputation for defense, and it’s being cited by the club as a big reason he made the team. While he probably won’t have the occasionally embarrassing play like Francisco had in 2013, if you start to look around at the major defensive metrics, it’s hard to find one that has him as an above average in 2013.

Defensive stats aren’t yet as good as offensive ones, but it’s still somewhat concerning that a guy who is being kept for his defense doesn’t really show as being very good in recent years in objective measures.

One way this might make sense is if the Brewers really do plan on giving Mark Reynolds most of the starts at first base this year, and really only want Overbay as a veteran bat off the bench and a late inning sub.

Neither Francisco nor Overbay has had much success as a pinch hitter in his career, but Overbay’s more contact-oriented approach does seem better suited to coming off the bench.

If Reynolds struggles, though, Lyle Overbay doesn’t offer much upside at all as a replacement. What’s more, if Vegas and PECOTA are right, and the Brewers are really about an 80 win club on paper, they probably need to hit on a few lottery tickets to make noise in the race in 2014.

Juan Francisco is at least a moderately interesting scratch-and-win ticket at this point. Let’s just hope that Lyle Overbay isn’t a discarded $2 win ticket lying in a puddle on the ground.

Ryan Topp (@RDTopp on Twitter) runs the Brewers fan site Disciples of Uecker.