Francisco's time with Tribe likely limited

Francisco's time likely limited

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- A smile creeps across the face of Ben Francisco whenever the topic comes up.

June 29, 2007. A 1-1 game between the Indians and Rays at the ballpark formerly known as Jacobs Field. Francisco, making his first big league start, steps up to bat to lead off the bottom of the ninth against Shawn Camp.

A 2-2 slider, a swing of the bat, a ball sent hurtling into the left-field bleachers and, just like that, a memory Francisco will carry with him forever.

In an '07 season filled with feel-good moments, Francisco's walkoff blast that night was right up near the top of the list.

"Every time somebody brings it up, I smile," Francisco said. "You dream about that, but for it to come to realization ... for my family, for my friends, for myself, it was a great day."

Francisco stops smiling when another subject comes up: His potential immediate future with the Tribe.

The Indians already have four outfielders -- Grady Sizemore, Franklin Gutierrez, David Dellucci and Jason Michaels -- headed for the Opening Day roster. They have no intention of carrying a fifth.

To make matters worse, Shin-Soo Choo, by virtue of being out of Minor League options, will also be ahead of Francisco in the pecking order when he comes back from elbow surgery in May.

So Francisco, barring an unexpected change in circumstances, appears headed for his third season in Buffalo.

First off, let's be clear about one thing. The 26-year-old Francisco has nothing against the city of Buffalo.

"It's a great place to play," he said. "Great fans, they treat you nice there. I can't say anything bad about the place."

But let's be clear about one other matter. If Francisco never sees the city again, he'll be a happy man.

No players Francisco's age are finished products. He's the first to acknowledge that. Still, coming off a season in which he was the International League batting champ with a .318 average, 28 doubles, 12 homers, 51 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 95 games, he doesn't have a heck of a lot to prove at that level.

Going back, then, would hardly be Francisco's preference.

"If it happens that way, it will be frustrating," he said. "But right now, I'm going to control what I can control and go out there with something to prove. I'm going about every day like I'm going to make this team."

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The early Grapefruit League numbers back up that claim. Francisco's 4-for-4 performance against the Astros on Thursday bumped his spring average up to .438. He's knocked in four runs in his first five games.

Unfortunately for Francisco, those numbers don't add up to much. The Indians aren't in the habit of making roster decisions based off Spring Training performance. The vast majority of their expected Opening Day lineup was settled long before players reported to camp.

"They know what kind of player I am," said Francisco, who hit .274 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 25 games with the Tribe last season. "It's not up to what I do in the six weeks here."

Still, Francisco is making the most of his time here. For one, he's trying to improve his routes and timing in the corner outfield spots. He's also trying to become a smarter baserunner, which would significantly help his stock.

And when he's not on the field, Francisco is enjoying the benefits of commiserating with teammates who have been in his shoes.

A year ago, first baseman Ryan Garko, who was also Francisco's teammate at Servite High School near Anaheim, was in a very similar position. Garko had enjoyed his first successful taste of the big leagues in '06, but his spot on the '07 roster was not assured.

"The hardest thing to do is stay positive," Garko said. "If you start letting it affect you, then you're just bitter about being here and you'll just be miserable."

Garko said he was a bit guilty of having the wrong mindset two years ago. He had hit .303 at Buffalo in '05 and thought he was ready for the Majors. But in '06, he got caught up in trying to prove his big league worth and hit just .247 with the Bisons.

Francisco faces the threat of a similar plight if he doesn't face the situation properly.

"Triple-A is a tough level," manager Eric Wedge said. "Usually, not too many people are happy to be there. But I think it's very important that if, in fact, he does have to go back, he handles it appropriately."

When Francisco was sent back down to Buffalo last year, not long after his memorable moment against the Rays, he didn't miss a beat, statistically. But he admitted it was a tough adjustment on the mental side.

"You get used to being treated like a big leaguer, then you go down there," Francisco said. "The first couple days, I probably wasn't all the way there mentally. It takes a couple days to get over the hangover of it. But once you get back to playing, it's the same game. You've got to work hard to get back to where you were."

It appears that work will have to continue, until the composition of the Indians' outfield changes. And while his immediate prospects don't make him nearly as happy as the thought of that walkoff homer does, Francisco has learned to accept the facts of the sport's business side.

"That's baseball," he said. "You've got to wait your turn."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.