I’ve always had a soft spot for left handed sluggers. It all started with Geoff Jenkins, who had been the “Face of the Franchise” for as long as I had been cognizent of Brewers baseball. I loved watching his big leg kick while he either pounded balls to the right field bleachers or missed mightily at a breaking ball. Though the Phillies eliminated the Brewers in the 2008 playoffs, I was glad to see Geoff get a ring after years of losing teams in Milwaukee.
Another favorite was Russell “The Muscle” Branyan. I was fascinated by the three true outcome hitter: 11.9% career walk rate, 32.9% strikeout rate, and of his 682 career hits, 194 cleared the fences, including one to the Dew Deck at Miller Park.
However, one man stands above the rest. His tenure with the Brewers was brief, albeit unjustly so. One June 3, 2013, the Brewers acquired Juan Francisco from the Atlanta Braves for minor leaguer Thomas Keeling. The Brewers had a huge hole at first base, and thought enough of Juan to give him a shot there despite never having appeared there in his big league career. Big Juan immediately won a spot in my heart with his tremendous power; I couldn’t believe the Brewers had stumbled upon this relatively young (at age 26) commodity that had yet to fully tap into his seemingly limitless offensive prowess (You can see his 2013 highlights here).
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Despite my extremely favorable memories of Juan, the Brewers were not sold on the young Dominican. I suppose objectively, you can’t blame them, as Francisco hit only .221 with a .300 OBP, albeit with a .433 slugging percentage. His 35.8% strikeout percentage was rather off putting, but he did manage a 9.3% walk rate and his 99 OPS+ was basically league average and he slugged 13 home runs in 270 plate appearances. My hope was that if the Brewers could commit to Francisco at first (at least against righties), he could improve on his -3 defensive runs saved and -8.7 UZR from 2013 and the build confidence in getting his first real everday playing time.
Unfortunately, the Brewers had other ideas, bringing in veterans Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to compete with Juan in Spring Training for the first base gig. Francisco put on a show in March, hitting .346/.500/.731 with three home runs in 26 at bats. The Brewers chose to keep the left handed Overbay to platoon with Reynolds however, valuing his more sure-handed glove at first base despite a .250 slugging percentage and being 0 for 26 at one point. Given that Juan was 10 years younger than Overbay and could’ve been controlled for another four seasons (although out of options), it was puzzling to me as to why Doug Melvin went that route. Francisco was released, and eventually caught on with the Blue Jays.
After a 12 game stint at AAA Buffalo, Juan was called up and put together a decent season in Toronto, starting off hot before cooling to finish with a .220/.291/.456 line and 16 home runs in 320 plate appearances. He lost playing time down the stretch and against struggled with strikeouts, whiffing an astonishing 36.3% of the time. He still put up above average marks of 106 wRC+ and 107 OPS+, but was waived by the Blue Jays after the season. The Red Sox claimed him, but non tendered him in December.
Yesterday, Juan reportedly caught on with the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor league contract. The Rays have been in a rebuild mode this offseason, moving Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, and Wil Myers, in addition to losing longtime manager Joe Maddon. Francisco currently is set to serve as depth at first and third base as well as designated hitter. It stands to reason that the Rays could be open to moving James Loney in a further effort to rebuild, and if this is the case then Francisco become a valuable contributor at the Major League level.
Sometimes I still think what could’ve been had the Brewers committed to a young Juan Francisco last season, although not as much since the Brewers picked up Adam Lind. I will always be a huge Francisco fan (and should have my own knock-off Brewers #21 jersey within 5-15 days), and wish him the best of luck in Tampa Bay this coming season.