Position: LHP Height: 6-5 Weight: 200 Born: 1/8/81 Bats: Left Throws: Left
As the Rockies search for pitching to hold their staff together, one name you may hear is Jeff Francis, currently pitching for Tulsa in the Double-A Texas League. Drafted in the first round in 2002, Francis, a product of the University of British Columbia, is one of the most advanced players to ever come out of Canada. A classic left-hander, he has a fine combination of stuff and command. He had a solid season in 2003 in the California League and is off to a brilliant start in 2004.
Francis is tall and rather lanky. A good overall athlete, he still has room to fill out and add strength to his frame and oomph to his fastball. Even if that doesn't happen, his fastball is already more than adequate at 89-92 mph. When Francis was drafted, his breaking pitch was a rather erratic slurve, but he's refined the breaker into a very nice standard curveball. He's also made major strides with his changeup and has learned to work both corners of the plate with all three pitches. He is not afraid to throw inside. Francis' command is already above average and should end up in the excellent category with more experience. His delivery is smooth, helping his command and keeping excess stress off his arm. Francis fields his position well and is effective at holding runners.
Francis got off to a slow start in 2003, but he retained his confidence and finished strongly, winning 10 of his last 13 starts and posting a 1.06 ERA. This season, he's picked up where he left off last year, mowing down Texas League hitters with relative ease. He fanned 11 against Arkansas on April 14, 10 against San Antonio on May 1, and another 11 against Round Rock on May 7. His K/BB, K/IP, and H/IP ratios are all outstanding for Tulsa. His 2003 numbers were sharp across the board, and the fact that he's maintained (and improved) his ratios while moving up to a more difficult league is an excellent marker for his future. Double-A isn't posing much of a challenge thus far, so a promotion to Triple-A should come sooner rather than later.
So far, Francis has had no serious arm problems. He was limited to just seven starts after signing in 2002 due to a freak concussion: he was hit in the head by a baseball while sitting in the dugout. But he recovered just fine, and has had no ill physical or psychological effects from the injury. As for his arm, Francis' mechanics are sound and should help him remain healthy. His good control helps keep his pitch counts down and he has not been overworked. There's no guarantee he won't have problems down the road, of course, but it helps.
What to expect
Ideally, Francis should stay in the minors this season, adding to his experience base and refining his game, preparing for a shot at a job in 2005. But the world is not ideal, and the Rockies are desperate for pitching right now. Prospects Aaron Cook and Jason Young are about to get chances, and it wouldn't be shocking if Francis gets a call later this summer. On his own terms, Jeff Francis is one of the five best left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Whether he'll be able to turn that into success in Coors Field is another matter.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through on-line book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and feline friends Toonces and Spot.