Phillies

Jeff Francoeur: 'Shame on' MLB owners and players if they don't figure this out

Jeff Francoeur: 'Shame on' MLB owners and players if they don't figure this out

When Jeff Francoeur gazes at his crystal ball, he sees baseball.

This summer.

"I think we're going to end up with baseball being played," the former Phillie and 12-year big-leaguer said. "We need baseball."

Francoeur, now a member of the Atlanta Braves television broadcast team, was a guest on our Phillies Talk podcast Wednesday, a day after baseball owners proposed a salary structure for a shortened 2020 season that was quickly panned by the players.

"My crystal ball says the owners and players will figure this out in the next seven to 10 days," Francoeur said. "There might be a couple shots thrown in the media, but you know what? Baseball's always withstood that. If they open up on July 4, families sitting around with a beer and barbecue watching a baseball game, I think we'll look back and say, 'We did a pretty damn good job with this.'"

The sporting world shut down in mid-March as the coronavirus health crisis surged. Now, leagues are plotting a course to return. Major League Baseball would like to come back in July with an 82-game schedule. For health reasons, fans will not be permitted in ballparks — at least for a while — and players will have to do their best to observe rules of social distancing and other sanitary practices, such as no spitting.

Everybody seems OK with all of this.

Except for one thing.

The money.

Owners have already suffered revenue losses and playing games in empty stadiums will equal more loss. They have proposed sliding-scale salary cuts that could have the game's most highly paid marquee stars making about one-fifth of their 2020 salaries. To wit, Bryce Harper, with an average annual salary just under $25.4 million, would make about $6.5 million.

Management's proposal is viewed by most as a starting point in negotiations that must happen quickly because teams would need to be in "spring training" camps by mid-June to pull off an early July return. 

Francoeur, who retired after the 2016 season, was asked point-blank if he believed either side had "the guts" to call off the season.

"I don't," he said. "I don't. Because I know, as a player, I would be fighting my tail off to tell (union boss) Tony Clark to tell the players, 'We've got to figure something out.' I think the thing that stinks now is (the instant reaction of) social media. If you could put the owners and the players together in a room for three days and say, 'figure it out,' without everybody else knowing one thing or another. That's the worst part, that this is going to play out in the media. I just tell people, 'Look, it's going to run its course.' Eventually, in the next week, you're going to see them come to an agreement and I do believe that in the middle of June, teams are going to be fired back up for spring training.

"As a former player, I'll always be a player, a union guy. Those are my guys, my buddies. But I'll tell you this: There's going to have to be concessions on both sides. Baseball has to figure it out. And if it doesn't, I'll be the first one to say it, shame on them, shame on the owners and shame on the players if they don't figure this out."

Francoeur offered a potential solution.

"I'm not a huge fan of the sliding scale," he said. "I think the best way to do it is deferments. In two or three years, make up the money on the back end for your high-profile, high-paid guys. They don't need the money right now. But I also understand you're asking some of these guys to basically take an 80 percent pay cut. 

"It's tough because you're talking about billionaires talking to millionaires with 30 to 35 million people unemployed. They don't want to hear it and I think we all get that. The whole health protocol, they're going to figure that out. But if there's no baseball because of the financial aspect, if they don't come to an agreement, I'll tell you what, that's going to be sad when all these other sports get playing. Baseball has a chance to be the focal point this summer. I said from Day 1, could you imagine an opening day on July 4? On the biggest independence holiday here, to not have baseball would be a shame.

"If this is green-lighted to go from a health standpoint and you can't get out there because of finances, then shame on baseball."

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Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.

The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.

Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.

He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.

“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”

Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.

After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.

“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”

Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.

It’s time to cash in on that potential.

A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.

Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”

There is a difference.

“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We're not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We're going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He's always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”

We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.

While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter's innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.

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Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

About nine months after free agency opened, Yasiel Puig has finally found a home. He agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Braves, which means the Phillies could see him 10 times in 2020.

The Braves are still a contender but were reeling and needed to make some sort of move to add more talent to their roster. Over the last two weeks, they've seen superstar Freddie Freeman and top reliever Will Smith test positive for COVID-19, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez have opted out of the season.

Puig, 29, will likely play right field and bat in the spot Markakis would have occupied. The Braves still have a strong outfield with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center and Puig in right. To optimize for defense, they could play Ender Inciarte in the outfield and have either Ozuna or Puig DH.

There was so much fanfare over Puig when he debuted with the Dodgers seven years ago, but he hasn't been able to replicate the production from his first two seasons. He's settled in as a .260-ish hitter with mid-20s home-run power and an on-base percentage right around the league average. In fact, in back to back seasons, he has hit exactly .267 with exactly a .327 OBP.

In 141 career plate appearances against the Phillies, Puig is a .301 hitter with eight doubles, three triples, three homers and 18 RBI.

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