Francoeur armed with altered approach

Francoeur armed with new approach

ATLANTA -- As the Braves continue their search for an outfielder, they'd like to fill the need with a reliable power hitter who would rest in the middle of the lineup between Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.

But if they're feeling lucky and confident enough to take a gamble, Jones believes the Braves already possess the power-hitting right-handed batter to hit behind him and provide consistency in the cleanup spot.

"Frenchy is going to hit cleanup for us this year," Jones said with a sense of confidence earlier this month.

When asked if he'd seen Frenchy (aka Jeff Francoeur) hit recently, Jones replied, "Yeah, and he looks better than I've ever seen him. His weight distribution, his approach, his mind-set ... everything looks great. He's killing the ball right now."

What Francoeur has done over the past two months in a batting cage doesn't guarantee that he'll find success when he tests his new stance and approach against live pitchers in the heat of a game.

But the commitment to altering his approach and focusing on his baseball skills certainly puts Francoeur in a much better position than he was at this time last year, when he was better prepared for the National Football League's scouting combine than he was the start of Spring Training.

"I took a different approach last year going into [Spring Training], and it just ended up being a flop," Francoeur said. "I put too much weight on and I didn't hit soon enough. I didn't throw soon enough. I think the first day I threw was the first day of Spring Training. Now I'm kind of going like I did in [2005 and '06]. I'm going [to camp] to make the team and be in shape for when the first day of games come."

Motivated by the embarrassment of the .239 batting average and .359 slugging percentage that he compiled in 2008, Francoeur was determined to change. Instead of focusing on the weight-enhancing exercises that he'd hoped would increase his power last year, the 25-year-old outfielder maintained a more athletic frame and developed a new batting stance that he likens to the right-handed version of former Braves and current Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira.

With his new stance, Francoeur points his left foot slightly inward. As he transfers his weight during his swing, there is minimal movement with his left foot.

"With my new stance and my new approach, I think I'm going to be able to see the ball a lot better," Francoeur said. "When you get the foot down, like everybody says, you're going to see the ball a lot longer and swing at better pitches.

"[McCann] said when he'd come to watch me in high school, I was always skinny and wiry-strong. So I've tried to get back to that, instead of being so big and just trying to hit home runs. I'm going to try to hit gap-to-gap this year."

More than anything, Francoeur is just looking to find the consistency that was absent last year. After his first 25 games of the 2008 season, he was hitting .294 with three home runs and a .500 slugging percentage. In some ways, it looked like he'd picked up where he'd left off during the '07 season, when he produced a career-high .293 batting average with 19 homers and a .444 slugging percentage.

But over the course of his next 60 games, Francoeur hit .207 with five homers and an alarming .319 slugging percentage. This prolonged stretch led the Braves to send him to Double-A Mississippi for a weekend in early July.

Embarrassed and perturbed by the demotion, Francoeur didn't provide a lot of reason for encouragement after returning to the Majors. But while hitting .245 with three homers and a .340 slugging percentage in his final 70 games, he gave himself reason to do whatever possible to avoid feeling similar frustration in the future.

"Last year was what it was," Francoeur said. "I struggled and I didn't know how to handle it and I let it get in my head. I'm looking forward to getting back out there. Really, I think I'm going to be a different player than I was in [2006 and '07]. "I think the best thing for me was to get the season done and have some time in the offseason just to think about things and move on. I got my confidence back and I'm looking forward to showing what I can do."

Just three years removed from having the opportunity to play for Team USA in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Francoeur is still a ripe 25 years old and looking to prove what he can do at the Major League level.

While hitting .260 during his first full big league season in 2006, he was encouraged by the fact that he hit 29 homers and recorded 103 RBIs. One season later, he totaled 19 homers and 105 RBIs while hitting .293.

The 2008 season was supposed to be one in which he meshed this power and consistency. But instead, it proved to be one that created doubts about his future.

"I just turned 25 and I feel like I have the prime of my career ahead of me," Francoeur said. "Most guys don't hit their peak until they're 27 or 28. I feel confident that I'm going to come back, do what I need to do and help this team win, because I know I'm a big part of it."

Francoeur's inconsistencies have created some tension as he enters his first arbitration-eligible season. The Braves have offered a salary of $2.8 million, and the outfielder is seeking $3.95 million.

While it's often best to avoid an arbitration hearing, both parties have reached an understanding that they may not reach an agreement before their scheduled hearing on Feb. 20.

"It is what it is," Francoeur said. "It's part of the process. It's like buying a house. You put in a number, they put in a number and you try to meet. ... Everybody has to go through it.

"The last thing I want to do is sit in a courtroom and have them rip me and me rip them. You don't want that. It's not a great situation. But at the same time, it's part of the process. I hope to get down to Spring Training and just get it done with and move forward."

Obviously in Jones' eyes, Francoeur has already started this process of putting the past behind him.

"When I get a compliment from him, I feel I'm heading in the right direction," Francoeur said.

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