Francisco makes first big league start at first base
MILWAUKEE -- Juan Francisco became the 14th different player to man first base for the Brewers since Prince Fielder departed two winters ago, the eighth different player to start at the position, and the latest in a long line of players to learn the position on the fly on Tuesday.
Only one of the 14 is a "true" first baseman: Travis Ishikawa. The rest are a right fielder (Corey Hart), three shortstops (Yuniesky Betancourt, Cesar Izturis and Alex Gonzalez), four catchers (George Kottaras, Blake Lalli, Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado) and four others who can most accurately be described as utility men (Brooks Conrad, Mat Gamel, Taylor Green and Cody Ransom).
There are grey areas in those groupings. Gamel was drafted as a third baseman, moved to the outfield and then to first base to prepare for Fielder's departure. Hart began his professional career as a first baseman, but had not played there in a decade before re-acclimating himself last season. Lalli played first base extensively in the Minors, but the Brewers listed him as a catcher.
Already this season, five different players have manned first base, four of them for the first time ever in the Major Leagues: Gonzalez, Betancourt, Lucroy and now Francisco, a third baseman by trade who made his Brewers debut against the A's on Tuesday, a little more than 24 hours after he was traded to Milwaukee from Atlanta. Francisco didn't make an error in Tuesday's 4-3, 10-inning win over Oakland, and went 0-for-2 with a walk. Betancourt pinch-hit for him in the ninth and later delivered the game-winning hit.
"Of course I'm a little nervous, having never played it," Francisco said through a translator. "I'm hoping I'll get the nerves out and calm down."
Francisco briefly played first base in the Minor Leagues and in the Dominican Winter League, where he played alongside new teammates Jean Segura, Wily Peralta and Alfredo Figaro (he is also close with Carlos Gomez). But before Tuesday, all 880 1/3 of Francisco's defensive innings in the Majors had come at third base.
The Brewers sent Minor League left-hander Thomas Keeling to the Braves to get Francisco's left-handed power bat and some balance for a lineup that was heavily right-handed. He also gives the Brewers additional coverage at third base, where Aramis Ramirez is still building strength after an early-season knee injury.
Francisco became available after the Braves designated him for assignment on Thursday.
"This is a much better opportunity, because there are more opportunities to play here, first or third," Francisco said.
At least three Brewers scouts filed positive reports on Francisco, including former pro scouting director Dick Groch and newcomer Cory Melvin, the son of GM Doug Melvin. Pro scouting director Zack Minasian saw Francisco back in 2007 in the Midwest League, and liked his raw power and strong arm. He had him marked as a future big leaguer.
The Brewers also discussed Francisco as a potential target during Spring Training because he was out of options.
"You hear how good people are, but I need to see him and formulate my own opinion on how good he is," manager Ron Roenicke said. "I also need to see later in the game if it comes up and I need to replace him defensively. … I don't take defense at first base lightly. I think it is very important."
At some point, the Brewers hope Hart returns and reclaims the position. He is still recovering from January surgery on his right knee.
"He ran the bases [Monday] for the first time," Roenicke said. "OK, tentative. So, it's hard to say. I don't know if we're a week away [from a Minor League rehabilitation assignment]. He said it just depends on how fast he comes along. Sometimes the new things he does feel awkward and it takes him a while, and sometimes the new things just happen right away and he feels great."