LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves added a backup for Chipper Jones by trading for Reds minor league slugger Juan Francisco on Sunday, sending pitching prospect J.J. Hoover to Cincinnati in the two-player deal.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said Martin Prado would move back to left field and Francisco would fill in for Jones most of the time, although the Braves will still use Prado at third base and Matt Diaz in left field against some left-handers.
Francisco, 24, was rated the best power-hitting prospect in the Reds organization a year ago. He had at least 23 homers and 90 RBIs in three consecutive minor league seasons thru 2009, and has a .284 average and five homers in 181 plate appearances in parts of three major league seasons with the Reds.
“We’re going to give him every opportunity,” Gonzalez said of the left-handed hitter. “I don’t think he’s ever had an opportunity to play every day at the major league level. I know in the minor leagues he’s always been a guy who’s hit for average also. So we’ll give him an opportunity whenever Chipper’s out.”
Since he’s out of minor league options, Francisco couldn’t be sent down without clearing waivers. Braves general manager Wren said he’s a potential candidate to succeed Jones, who plans to retire after the 2012 season.
“[Francisco] could be a guy who figures for us for a while at third,” Wren said. “We just don’t know at this point. We’re going to get a chance to watch him and see how it develops.”
Francisco hit .307 with 15 homers and a .334 on-base percentage in 314 plate appearances in Triple-A last season.
Hoover, 24, was caught in a logjam of Braves pitching prospects, just below the top tier. A 10th-round draft pick by the Braves in 2008, he had a 25-19 record and 3.14 ERA in 99 games (61 starts) during four minor league seasons, including a 2.64 ERA in 43 games (14 starts) last season in Double-A and Triple-A, with 117 strikeouts in 105-2/3 innings.
The right-hander excelled after a midseason move to the bullpen and had 31 strikeouts in 18-2/3 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett.
“We like [Hoover],” Wren said. “We thought at some point he would be able to help us in middle relief here this year. He was one of our corps of young arms we thought would be here at some point this year, but when you get a chance to get a guy with this type of offensive potential — they’re hard to come by.”
Francisco has played almost exclusively at third base in six professional seasons, but has some experience at first base and the outfield corners. Wren said he could play left field or first base in the majors, but would primarily play third and also pinch-hit.
“Because he’s a left-handed hitter it gives Fredi the ability to mix and match,” Wren said. “I’m sure there will be times when he’ll play third and Prado will stay in left, but there may be other times where he still uses [Matt] Diaz in left to face a tough lefty and uses Prado at third. It gives us a lot of flexibility on our club. But [Francisco] is an offensive threat. He hit a couple of home runs this week while we’ve been watching him, and he has big power.”
Listed at 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds, Francisco hit a 502-foot homer at Cincinnati in 2011, second-longest homer at Great American Ball Park. (Click here for video of that blast.) Triple-A International League managers voted his arm as the best among the league’s infielders last season.
Wren said the Braves had talked since the Winter Meetings with the Reds about Francisco, who was blocked in Cincinnati by veteran third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Joey Votto.
“This was one of the things that was on the front burner for us really since the beginning of spring training,” Wren said. “We inquired and thought we were making progress towards a deal back at the winter meetings for him, and they decided to hold on through spring training and just see how their club came together.
“As their guys all got healthy and played well I think they felt like they needed guys with more flexibility, more super-utility types.”
Francisco has a .286 minor-league career average with 116 homers, 439 RBI and a .317 OBP in 652 games over six seasons. In Triple-A last season he hit .343 (72-for-210) against righties with 30 extra-base hits (10 homers), a .370 OBP and a .586 slugging percentage.