Tigers Potential Free Agent Target: Jeff Francis

In the few hundred words that follow, I’m going to relay an exceedingly unpopular opinion of mine. This has actually been building up for quite a while, but recent reports of the Detroit Tigers’ interest in Joe Saunders make it more relevant than ever.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: I think the Tigers should consider signing Jeff Francis. Yes, that Jeff Francis. Don’t hate me. I actually have a few okay reasons for this seemingly gross suggestion.

First and foremost, he’s left-handed. It’s been widely speculated that if the Tigers do acquire a veteran to fill the final spot in their rotation for 2012 and buy more time for Jacob Turner, that pitcher would ideally be left-handed in order to balance their current righty-stacked staff. There aren’t many left-handers on the market. Gio Gonzalez is available in a trade, but he’s much more than filler and will rightfully be out of Detroit’s price range. Saunders was recently non-tendered, and while he is more realistic, he had his best season in 2011 and will be looking for the money to match his ERA of 3.69; it seems his price tag will outweigh his value. C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle are off the market, as is Bruce Chen, who re-signed for two years with the Kansas City Royals. That doesn’t leave much.

Unlike Wilson and Buehrle, who signed massive deals with the Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins respectively, Francis should come pretty cheap. For comparison, his 2011 teammate Chen signed a two-year deal for $4.5 million per year. Francis should cost even less.

He’s no ace, of course, but he is certainly not incapable by any stretch. His career survived through five full seasons pitching for the Colorado Rockies, whose home stadium isn’t exactly pitcher-friendly. His career ERA sits at 4.78, and his FIP of 4.40 actually suggests he’s better than that. This year for Kansas City, his FIP was 4.10, directly in between those posted by Rick Porcello (4.06) and Max Scherzer (4.14). His xFIP, which attempts to correct home run rates to predict future performance, was 3.79 in 2010, his last year with the Rockies. xFIP is actually scaled higher than FIP and ERA, so that 3.79 is actually even better than it looks. Francis’ favorable predictive stats contrast to those of Joe Saunders, whose FIP in 2011 was better than only Bronson Arroyo and Brad Penny among qualified starters and tied that of A.J. Burnett.

He’s not perfect, of course. He barely strikes out anyone (his K/9 this year was 4.48, less than every qualified starter except Penny and Carl Pavano) and he gives up a ton of hits (11.02 H/9, higher than every qualified starter this year). He is very serviceable, though, and easily an upgrade over Penny. He also gets the ball to the plate quicker than Penny, taking an average of 20 seconds between pitches according to FanGraphs (below league average, thankfully).

Before this year, there was some uncertainty about the condition of Francis’ throwing shoulder. He proceeded to throw 183 innings, though, so injury concerns may be behind him. Besides, if Turner is ready around mid-season, it’s not like Detroit would need him to throw 200 innings. He could be traded to a pitching-starved team around the deadline for a decent return.

A soft-tosser, Francis features a mid-eighties fastball and a mid-seventies change-up. His third pitch, a mediocre curve, comes in even slower. This isn’t usually the type of pitcher the Tigers like as an organization, but he might slow bats down effectively and keep guys off balance for the plethora of hard throwers in the Tigers’ bullpen and rotation.

On top of all that, the Tigers wouldn’t have to face him; he’s started against Detroit four times and has a 3.08 ERA over 26.1 innings.

Convinced by my rant? No, you’re probably not, but for some reason, I still think signing Francis cheap would be a pretty solid move. Better than getting Saunders.

Tags: Brad Penny Bruce Chen C.J. Wilson Gio Gonzalez Jacob Turner Jeff Francis Joe Saunders Mark Buehrle

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