Rejuvenated Francoeur able to smile again on field
Admittedly depressed in 2013, outfielder enjoying time competing for Tribe job
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Rare is the moment that Jeff Francoeur is not smiling in camp these days with the Indians. On the field and in the clubhouse, the veteran outfielder acts like an overjoyed kid, rediscovering the kind of fun that disappeared on him last year.
"I'm very comfortable and confident with where I'm at now," Francoeur said.
That would hardly be news for most players within the optimistic atmosphere that Spring Training brings. For Francoeur, who is in camp with Cleveland as a non-roster invitee, it is an important statement. A content mental state seemed extremely far away when he packed his bags and headed home last August.
There were other job offers, but Francoeur needed a break from baseball.
"To put it mildly, I think I was depressed," Francoeur said.
Francoeur found his respite on the beaches of Destin, Fla., where he spent parts of September and October with his wife, Catie, and their daughter, Emma. Their baby girl arrived over the All-Star break, bringing some happiness to what was an otherwise dismal season with the Royals, who released Francoeur in early July.
Shortly before Emma arrived, Francoeur signed a contract with San Francisco on July 9, but he had no idea at the time how difficult the transition would be for him. Mentally, Francoeur said he was "checked out," especially with his family on the other side of the country. When they visited him during an Aug. 13-15 series in Washington, D.C., they noticed how much weight Francoeur had lost.
Normally around 215-220 pounds, Francoeur had dropped to around 201, and he admits now that he was not eating right or taking care of his body.
On Aug. 21, Francoeur was released by the Giants.
"I lost confidence in myself," Francoeur said. "I was done, man. Me and my wife had tried to have a kid for three years, and we had a kid on Monday of the All-Star break last year. We had a little baby girl -- our first one. We had two miscarriages and gone through some issues. ... We had four or five other teams call wanting me to just join them for September to see how it goes. I told my agent, 'No.' I was done."
Francoeur's agent warned the outfielder that taking that stance would mean only a Minor League deal would be realistic for the upcoming season. Under the circumstances, the 30-year-old Francoeur accepted that possibility and decided to focus on his family.
After the Indians traded outfielder Drew Stubbs to the Rockies in December, Francoeur heard from both Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona. They wanted to give the outfielder a chance at earning a spot on the Tribe's bench, serving as an option against lefty pitching and providing strong defense.
Francoeur, who was selected by the Braves in the first round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, compared having the chance to play for Francona to playing for Hall of Fame Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. He did not want to pass up the opportunity.
"A chance to play for a manager like him, I hadn't heard a bad thing about him," Francoeur said. "And I knew a lot of guys on this team and knew there was possibly an opportunity here. Tito plays everybody. I think that's the fun part here. Everybody stays involved. You saw it last year. ... And last year you saw how close they were and how much fun they had on the other side. For me, I wanted that.
"The last year and a half, two years, I haven't had that much fun and kind of missed the joy of coming to the yard."
That last comment sounded nearly identical to the kind of quotes offered last spring by utility man Ryan Raburn, who joined the Indians as a non-roster invitee after a rough season with the Tigers. While working as a part-timer in Francona's versatile lineup, Raburn thrived and launched 16 home runs in only 243 at-bats.
"I've talked to Ryan about that," Francoeur said. "I've known Ryan for a while now. That's what he said. He said, 'Tito really gave me a confidence boost last year to just go out and play and have fun.'"
In 81 games overall last year, Francoeur hit just .204 with a .536 OPS in his stints with Kansas City and San Francisco. The previous season, the outfielder managed only a .235 average (.665 OPS) in 148 games for the Royals. In 2011, though, Francoeur turned in what he calls his career year, posting a .285/.329/.476 slash line with 20 homers, 47 doubles, 87 RBIs, 77 runs and 22 stolen bases.
Francoeur has a pair of 100-RBI seasons on his resume (in 2006 and '07 with Atlanta), won a Gold Glove Award in '07, and currently ranks second among active players in outfield assists (121). While Francoeur labored against left-handers last year (.223), that has been a specialty of his over the course of his nine-year career (.285).
"I feel comfortable with what I've done and the numbers I can put up," Francoeur said. "If I hadn't done it before, had success at the big league level, I think it'd be different. Having done that, I know what I need to get back. I'm just kind of turning the page on last year."
Francona is looking forward to seeing if Francoeur can fit into Cleveland's picture.
"He's got one of the better reputations in baseball, as far as being a teammate," Francona said. "That helps. Last year, he kind of struggled against lefties, but that's been what he's really done [well] in his career. Certainly, with the amount of left-handed hitters we have in our outfield, we'd like to see what he can do."
That chance has Francoeur smiling.
"It's almost a breather, a relaxer, to come to camp," he said. "I put myself in this situation. Do I feel like I should be where I'm at now? No. I know I'm a better player than that. At the same time, I put myself in that situation. But there's also something you can do about it."