By Matthew Harrington
The Oakland Athletics hope lightning strikes three times this season after claiming reliever Jeff Francis off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds Sunday afternoon while option reliever Joe Savory back to Sacramento. In claiming Francis, general manager Billy Beane takes on his third southpaw reclamation project of the season after signing former All-star hurler Scott Kazmir in the offseason and trading for once highly-touted prospect Drew Pomeranz during the winter.
Francis, a former first round pick (ninth overall) of the Colorado Rockies in the 2002 draft appeared bound for Super Stardom in the Mile High City after his first full season in 2005. That year he finished with the sixth-fewest hits allowed in the National League at the ripe age of 24 years old.
He blossomed into a dominant pitcher in 2007, finishing ninth in the NL Cy Young voting despite a hitter-friendly Coors-field aided earned run average of 4.30. The Vancouver, British Columbia native took the ball 34 times that season with only five other qualifying NL starters allowing fewer hits. As the staff ace, Francis led Colorado to the franchises’ lone World Series appearance. While he played a large role in getting the Rockies to the Fall Classic, Francis was shelled to the tune of six runs in four innings of game one of what ultimately became four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox.
From there, Francis’ narrative is all too familiar. The fireballing stud becomes a lame-duck dud after arm injuries limited him to 24 starts in 2008. Francis missed all of 2009 after going under the knife to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. In 2010, he returned to piece together a respectable but unremarkable 5.00 ERA over 20 games (19 starts) before heading to Kansas city. With the Royals, Francis appeared to be a cobble together a bounce-back year, producing a 4.82 ERA over 31 starts. The Reds liked what they saw in Francis, signed him to a contract but released him in June without reaching the majors, setting up a reunion with the Rockies. The move saw his runs against rise just like his new home park’s elevation. By 2013 he eventually lost his role in the rotation and finished with a career-worst 6.27 ERA earning a ticket out of the Centennial State.
The Reds again took a flier on Francis this winter with a minor league deal then called him up to the big club after a strong showing at Class AAA Louisville where he allowed 18 earned runs over eight starts and 48.2 innings. He made his MLB season debut on May 15th against the Padres, allowing three earned runs a loss and a demotion back to AAA after five innings. The A’s, in need of an emergency starter, claimed him off waivers and returned him to the relief role he occupied last season with the Rockies.
If Francis needs a muse, he need only look at a former teammate, the man whose promotion created his opportunity in a long relief. Drew Pomeranz, a former first round pick himself, came to Oakland in a trade with Colorado for Brett Anderson in the offseason, making the A’s his third team already before reaching the age of 25. With the expectations of excellence met by the actuality of average performance coming into the season, Pomeranz found himself a longshot to make the A’s roster coming into Spring Training. With injuries sidelining the one-two punch of starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, Pomeranz leveraged a strong spring into a bullpen spot as the long man in Oakland. From there, the former All-American impressed, allowing a scant three runs over 13 and 2/3 innings, giving way to an impromptu audition for a rotation role with Dan Straily and Tommy Milone struggling at the backend.
Pomeranz’s appearance on the line-up card as starter of game two of a make-up double header against Seattle on May 7th came as an initial surprise, but how he delivered in his spot start sparked the real headlines. Pomeranz fired a two-hit five inning performance without yielding a run to the M’s. Once is an anomaly, but twice is a trend. With that in mind, Pomeranz backed up his first look with a worthy encore, baffling the Chicago White Sox his next time out to three hits and no runs, again going five strong. Suddenly Pomeranz again resembles the former Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year at the University of Mississippi, a can’t-miss prospect generating buzz after notching 13 punch-outs over his ten innings as a rotation member.
If Pomeranz scuffles, Francis can look to the rock-steady performance of another rebound role model, Scott Kazmir. Kazmir came to Oakland after his early All-World stock with Tampa Bay plummeted with injuries. After All-star seasons in 2006 and 2008 capped by a trip to the World Series with the Rays, the lefty bounced around with the Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland before hitting the open market this past offseason. Beane and co. opened the pocket book in hopes of finding an ace-in-waiting, inking the southpaw to a cool $7 million in 2014 with another $11 million on the books next season. So far, Kazmir has proven a wise investment, appearing on his way to a Mid-Summer Classic six years removed from his last All-Star appearance. Kazmir boasts a 2.39 ERA and a 5-1 mark over his first nine starts.
While it’s unknown what Francis can bring to the A’s, it’s clear he’s in good hands with manager Bob Melvin, pitching coach Curt Young and staff. So far, they’re two-for-two in redemption stories. Even if they swing and miss with Francis, a .667 batting average isn’t bad in baseball. At the very least, the game plan to success has clearly been laid out for Francis.