Sunday, April 1, 2012

Frazier and Francisco: Options and the making of a big league lineup

Frazier or Francisco? Who ya got?

by: Josh Bethel
Staff Writer

If we learned anything during the Spring Training of 2010, it was that success in spring doesn't always transfer to the regular season. Dave Sappelt, 2011 spring sensation and current Chicago Cub, tore it up in Goodyear before last year's regular season, putting up an amazing line of .564/.571/.974. He had all the obvious signs of a player finally coming into his own and in dramatic fasion. Many thought this might have sealed his shot at being the Reds fourth outfielder, sending Heisey down to AAA and possibly putting Johnny Gomes' starting spot in danger. As we now know, this wasn't meant to be. Sappelt was sent back down to Louisville and while he still hit an impressive .313 in the minors, he faltered after joined the big league club in September, going .243/.289/.318.

Such is the annual story of Spring Training. Veterans that seem to have lost all vision at the plate and struggle to stay above .200 still keep their starting spots, and then get into their groove once the regular season starts. And spring superstars looking for their first crack at the show are stumped by major league pitching when they get playing time that matters.

Minor league players Chris Valakia, Didi Gregorius, and Dennis Phipps all had good plate appearances this spring, but were hopeless to crack the major league lineup for various reasons. Or in the case of Todd Frazier, possibly won't head up north with the big club because of "options". And because he's a right-handed hitter.

Juan Francisco has shown flashes of brilliance while in his three years in Cincinnati. He has the distinction of hitting a jaw dropping 502 footer, the second longest homer ever at Great American Ballpark. He had a promising 2010, hitting .273 in just under 60 plate apperances, but in his 2011 campaign looked lost and wildly whiffed his way to a dissapointing .258 batting average and an OBP that was 11 points shy of .300. Reds fans have have continued to be patient, waiting for Francisco to become the power hitting third basemen they've been waiting for. Or at least consistent enough to to have quality at bats on a regular basis when aging slugger Scott Rolen has to sit.

Baker has some tough decisions to make...soon.
But all of this came to a head when Francisco showed up in early-March overweight. Something that's not always concerning for a player after an offseason, but in Francisco's case concerning enough to earn criticism from Dusty Baker, a manager who usually avoids bad mouthing his players in the media. And while putting on some weight over the offseason isn't something to usually panic over, it seems to have had an effect on his hitting. He's been struggling with a .184/.180/.449. While his sample size is small, he's definitely been given chances to turn it around, having 49 at bats so far in Arizona, fourth most of any player on the roster.

Meanwhile, Frazier looks like a player that, like Sappelt last year, has finally put it all together at some point during the offseason. He's hitting .280 getting on base every third time he comes to the plate and leading last year's second best offense in Goodyear in home runs and RBIs. And like any player in Spring, sample size isn't king, but he's done this with 50 at bats, more plate appearances than anyone not named Brandon Phillips or Zach Cozart.

But other than the glaring differences in stats, there are two more subtle differences the casual fan might not be aware of that effect which of the two third basemen will be backing up Rolen in 2012. Unlike Frazier, Francisco is out of options. The Reds can no longer send him down to the minors. They can either put him on the 25-man or DFA him. But what is seemingly more important in Dusty Baker's eyes is this: the Reds have a shortage of left handed bats and power coming off the bench. Frazier, a righty, doesn't fit this role and can still spend time in AAA. So while Frazier is showing promise, doing everything the right way and in any other situation has earned his spot on in The Show, it's probably not meant to be. Not this year.

Or there's another more likely truth: Spring Training doesn't count for much of anything, no matter how well you do.

Be sure to give Josh a follow on Twitter (@joshuadbethel).

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