On the surface, the Reds signing of Jeff Francis to a minor-league contract seems like no-news news. However, I think he has a chance to play an important role on a team that should probably be considered the favorite in the National League Central.
Ok. A pitcher who went 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA and only 4.5 K/9 isn't generally much in demand, and Francis is several years and a major injury removed from his time as a promising young pitcher. The ninth pick in the 2002 draft, Francis rose quickly through the Colorado Rockies organization. Before the 2005 season, Baseball America ranked him the #23 prospect in baseball. In 2006 and 2007, he went 30-20. His ERA was 4.19, a number that might otherwise be mediocre but in Coors Field was a 116 ERA+. In 2007, he struck out 165 in 215.1 innings, and helped the Rockies reach their first World Series. Going into 2008, Francis's age-27 season, things looked good for both player and team.
Of course, these things don't always work out - Francis was experiencing shoulder soreness that caused him to be ineffective in 2008. The injury was determined to be an injured tendon in his biceps, and he was shut down after 21 starts. He attempted to rehab, but to no avail, and opted for shoulder surgery in February 2009, which shut him down for the next 15 months. Upon his return to the Rockies in May 2010, his fastball's velocity had lost about 4 mph, and he was generally ineffective all season. The Rockies cut ties with their former top prospect and Francis signed a one-year contract with the traditionally bottom-feeding Kansas City Royals for 2011.
In 2011, Francis wasn't especially good, but there are some positives, and some reason to think he could be a good signing for the Reds. First of all, while his 4.82 ERA is unsightly, his 4.10 FIP and 4.23 xFIP show that his peripherals are sometimes better than results. This is the second consecutive year Francis has underperformed what his statistics would predict, so it's important to determine whether Francis has been unlucky and should be expected to improve, or if he's just an AJ Burnett-corollary type, who consistently underachieves. That's not easy to do.
While his early-career ERA was generally in line with his FIP and other predictors, Francis is a totally different pitcher now, with a fastball that tops out at about 85. To compensate for his loss in velocity and declining strikeout rate, Francis has thrown more ground balls the last two seasons. Unfortunatly, he's been doing that in front of some pretty poor defenses - the Royals were 24th in baseball with a defensive efficiency(DE) of .701, and Francis ended up with a .316 BABIP. The Cincinnati Reds were 3rd in baseball and best in the National League with a .718 DE. That difference makes an especially big difference to a pitcher like Francis, who doesn't strike many batters out.
On the other hand, in his second year back from his injury, Francis's fastball actually lost velocity from 2010. Also, after an extremely effective July where he did everything well, he pitched very poorly the rest of the year. Whether this was fatigue or simply a regression to his actual ability remains to be answered. It's important to keep in mind, though, that he was at 135 IP by the end of July - he last reached that number in 2008, and he last reached it while healthy in 2007. If this was a case of fatigue, it was certainly understandable.
Something else to note - Francis allowed home runs on only 8.5% of his fly balls last year, despite a relatively low amount of infield flies, as Ryan Campbell of FanGraphs told us last week. That's not a good sign going into the Great American Ballpark, one of the best home run parks in baseball.
Even so, slightly worse luck on keeping fly balls in the park would be evened out by the fact playing in front of Cincinnati's defense will mean less people are on base when those home runs are hit. He also will be facing pitchers instead of designated hitters this year, so if his durability and velocity come back to his previous numbers a bit more, he should be able to post a strikeout rate in the mid-5's, a number that should help bring keep his ERA in the low 4's.
Does that fit with Cincinnati? Sure, "you can never have enough pitching" as the old saying goes. Still, the Reds have Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto entrenched, can probably expect some sort of revival from the previously consistent Bronson Arroyo, and after that have Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman. Of those three, Leake has more than earned the right to start. He wasn't as hyped as the other two, but as a first round draft pick who went straight to the majors, improved in every conceivable way in 2011, and is still only 24, why wouldn't they just pen him into the rotation?
Chapman, by contrast, has only made three professional starts, all in the minor leagues. The Reds say they are committed to him as a starter, and with his talent, they should be. Relievers are always available - the Reds owe it to themselves to give someone with Chapman's upside a chance to be as valuable as possible. What's the harm of letting him start the year at Triple-A though? With six other established starters in a weak division, the Reds are already poised to compete. No reason to throw Chapman into the fray before he's ready and risk both his confidence and their chances at the division.
That's where Francis fits in. Appearing as the 7th starter at first glance, he's more MLB-ready than Chapman. Quick question - do you expect all five of those starters, particularly Cueto and Bailey, to go the entire season without injury? That's unrealistic of any staff, even one comprised entirely of starters with a good health history. Francis could have significant value as a "swingman" type, starting out as a left-handed long reliever who is ready to move into the rotation if (when) one of the starters gets hurt. Much better him than trying to coordinate calling up Chapman the first time an injury strikes.
For $1.5 million for a pitcher with Francis's experience and likelihood of success, that seems like a sensible investment for the Reds.