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Retro Profile: Julio Franco

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Vital Statistics

Full Name: Julio Cesar Franco
Born: 8/23/1958, San Pedro de Macoris, DR
Height: 6'1" Weight: 210 lbs
Throws: Right Bats: Right
High School: Divine Providence HS, DR
Positions: SS, 2B, 1B, DH

Baseball Statistics

MLB.com
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball-Reference
Baseball Cube (minors)

Background

I'm not going to pretend to be comprehensive with Julio's 30-year professional career, but here's my best try:

Phase One: Shortstop (1978-1987)

1978: Franco signed a non-drafted minor-league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies at age 19, and he made his professional debut in Butte (R+) that spring.

1979: He was promoted to the Northwest League (Low-A ball at the time), and hit .328/.381/.512, very impressive for that level. I don't really know how exactly he was regarded, because Baseball America wouldn't exist for another couple years (sorry, couldn't resist). My guess is that an 18-year-old middle infielder who put up these kind of numbers would shoot to the top of the list.

1980: A promotion to the Carolina League. He continued to hit, putting up a .321/.361/.447 line, and was named Caroline League MVP.

1981: Promoted to the Eastern League. His power dropped, but he continued to hit for average. Opposing Eastern League managers voted him the league's best prospect. It's reasonable to place him among the best prospects in all of baseball at this point. It must be noted that Ryne Sandberg was also in the system at the time, and it was thought that one of the two would replace Larry Bowa as Philadelphia's starting shortstop. That all changed when Sandberg and Bowa were dealt to Chicago for slick-fielding shortstop Ivan DeJesus.

1982: Julio's final stop in the minors was in Oklahoma City; he hit .300/.357/.499. He was recalled by the Phillies for a short time early in the season, then returned to Oklahoma City. He re-joined the Phillies in September. (Quick trvia: during his brief stint with the Phillies, he hit against Jim Kaat, who had many years earlier faced Ted Williams.) After the season, he was traded to Cleveland along with four other players in exchange for Von Hayes. Before the deal, Philadelphia had entertained thoughts of dealing Manny Trillo and replacing him with Franco, but Trillo was included in the trade to Cleveland. The Phillies filled the void by dealing for a 39-year-old Joe Morgan.

So why was Franco dealt? The Phillies were desperate for a left-handed bat, and after they extended DeJesus, they "reluctantly" placed him on the market. They became enamored with Cleveland rookie slugger Von Hayes, to the point where they were willing to give up Franco and four other players. General Manager Phil Seghi recapped the trade (Terry Pluto, Sporting News, 12/20/82):

"Up the middle was our biggest weakness last year," said Seghi. "Now we took care of that. Trillo is a three-time Gold Glove winner. Franco has awesome potential. Now we have to sign (free agent) Rick Manning for center field. People will say we have no plan, but we do."

One last detail of that trade: to make room for the five players, the Indians dropped (among others) Joe Charboneau from the 40-man roster.

1983: Bill Conlin gave a short scouting report on Franco (SN, 1/3/83):

Since the 21-year-old Dominican dandy has averaged 37 errors a season a season the last three seasons, they can expect him to lead the league in errors. But he will reach balls no other shortstop in the league can reach, including Alfredo Griffin, can reach, especially behind second. He is a cut-loose free swinger in the Manny Sanguillen mold and hits the ball to all fields with power, remarkable for a lean, lanky kid.

Conlin also expressed concern with Franco's recent arm injuries, which apparently played a factor in him being dealt. The Indians front office denied any problems with his throwing arm.

Franco was the Indians' Opening Day shortsop, and played fairly well, hitting .273/.306/.388 (a 87 OPS+) for the Indians. Keep in mind that at this time, it was thought that Julio was just 21 years old. If we go by his current listed DOB, he was 24 years old in his first year with the Indians. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson likened him to a defensively-challenged Dave Concepcion. Julio finished second to Chicago's Ron Kittle in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

1984-1987: Franco remained a regular at shortstop, getting better each year, culminating with a .303/.361/.409 (114 OPS+) line in 1988.

Phase Two: Second Baseman (1988-1992)

1988: Franco was dealt in December to Texas for three players: Pete O'Brien, Oddibe McDowell, and Jerry Browne. The seeds of the deal were planted after Hank Peters was hired as the Indians' GM in 1987, and charged with yet again rebuilding the franchise. He was shopped around after the 1987 season, but Peters couldn't find the deal he wanted (the Yankees supposedly offered one of Al Leiter, Roberto Kelly, Jay Buhner, and Hensley Muelens). Franco, who was one year away from free agency, signed a two-year contract before the 1988 season, avoiding arbitration. By the end of 1988, Franco's new position was second base. He moved there to make room for Jay Bell to play shortstop, and when the Rangers traded for him, he stayed at second.

The Indians made the deal because the players received filled several holes. O'Brien settled the team's first base problem - they weren't convinced Luis Medina was good enough defensively to play at first. Jerry Browne took over second, while McDowell became the team's leadoff hitter (although he didn't stay there long).

1989-1993: Julio's most productive seasons. During his stint with Texas, he won four Silver Slugger awards for the league's best offensive second baseman. In 1992, he missed most of the season with a knee injury. In 1993, he became a full-time DH.

Phase Three: Designated Hitter (1993-1997)

1994: Julio signed with Chicago White Sox after the 1993, and served as the White Sox DH. He had his best offensive season, hitting .319/.406/.510, winning another Silver Slugger award (this time for Designated Hitters), and finished a career-high 8th in AL MVP voting. After the strike abruptly ended the season, Julio signed a lucrative deal to play in Japan for the 1995 season.

1996-1997: The Indians, after cutting ties with Paul Sorrento, were looking for a first baseman, and brought Franco back. He was extremely productive for the Indians, hitting .322/.407/.470 in 432 at-bats. His batting line in 1997 was much worse, and the Indians released him in August. Julio signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, and rode out the rest of the season there.

Phase Four: World Tour (1998-2001)

1998-2000: At this point, Julio was 39 years old, the age where most players would call it a career. But he still tried to make it back to the majors, and in order to do it, he returned to Japan for the 1998 season. Even though he had a good year with Chiba Lotte, he couldn't crack a major-league roster, aside from a single at-bat with the Devil Rays in 1999. He spent much of that year in the Mexican League, and went to South Korea in 2000.

Phase Five: First Baseman (2001-Present)

2001-2005: Julio was now 42 years old, and though he'd largely been out of the majors for three seasons, he continued to play professionally. He returned to Mexico, and played much of the season with the Angelopolis Tigers. The Atlanta Braves, desperately needing some offensive production, purchased Franco from the Tigers in September, and installed him at first base. In 90 at-bats, he hit .300/.376/.444 as the Braves won the AL East yet again.

The Braves brought him back as a platoon first baseman the following season, and he stayed with Atlanta through 2005, and was remarkably consistent in his role. Keep in mind the four-year stretch in Atlanta consisted of four one-year contracts, so he didn't have much of a cushion if he fell into any kind of a prolonged slump.

2006-Present: The New York Mets knew all too well how effective Franco was, being in the Braves' division; they offered Franco a two-year contract to serve as a part-time first baseman and pinch-hitter. At the time Franco signed the deal, he was 47 years old. I believe giving a multi-year deal to a player that old was unprecendented. His first year with the Mets, his power slipped, as did his playing time, but he still was an effective pinch-hitter. Three weeks into 2007, he's 1 for 4 with two walks, and is still used regularly off the bench.

Conclusion

This is as odd a career arc as you'll ever to see. None of Franco's similar batters at Baseball-Reference are really good comps: the most similar is Alan Trammell, and that's with a similarity score of 896. Franco "aged" roughly three years after making the majors, but it didn't really affect his career since he played so long. How did Julio stick around so long? He's kept himself in great shape, but it's his amazing bat speed that has kept him in the majors a decade after similar players' reflexes had deserted them. His long-stated goal has been to stay in the majors until turning 50; that's going to be difficult to do, but if he can keep his body in shape, and now that he's become a "proven" pinch-hitter, he could work his way onto one more team.