Juan Francisco: 39th Dragon in the Major Leagues
What hitter possessed the greatest pure power in Dragons history? Samone Peters? Wily Mo Pena? Juan Francisco? Juan Duran? The exploits of each of those players are the basis for legendary tales from fans at Fifth Third Field who were in the ballpark the night that Wily Mo's blast cleared Monument Street, or Duran hit one off the eye of the Dragon above the video board.
Three times in Dragons history, a Dayton player has led the Midwest League in home runs. It happened in the Dragons inaugural season of 2000 when Austin Kearns led the circuit with 27 long balls. The very next season, Dayton's Samone Peters hit 28 to lead the league and set a club record that still stands, 12 years later. Wily Mo Pena, his teammate, finished second in the league that season with 26. Then in 2007, Juan Francisco led the Midwest League in home runs with 25, and just two years later, Francisco would become the 39th Dragons player to play in the Major Leagues.
Juan Francisco signed with the Reds as a 16-year-old international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in May of 2004. His climb to the big leagues started slowly. He spent the 2005 season at the Reds academy in the Dominican Republic, and then in 2006, he played for the Gulf Coast League Reds, a club that was housed at the Reds spring training complex at the time in Sarasota, Florida. In 2007, he moved up to join the Dragons and began the season as the team's starting third baseman and cleanup hitter at the young age of 19.
Francisco hit his first home run with the Dragons in his fourth game with the club, then went 10 more days without a homer. He began a vicious power streak on April 24 with a home run at home against Burlington, and three days later, he hit two in one game against Beloit. He opened the month of May by hitting home runs in each of the first two games and by June 1, he had 11 for the year. He finished the first half with a batting average of .278 with 12 home runs and 47 runs batted in and was selected to play in the Midwest League All-Star Game with Dragons infield teammates Chris Valaika and Justin Turner.
Francisco's best day with the Dragons, and one of the best for any hitter in Dragons history, came August 19 at Fifth Third Field in a Dragons 8-7 win over Lansing. Before a crowd of 9,108, Lansing scored three runs in the top of the first inning to take an early lead. Francisco crushed a two-run homer in the bottom of the first. After Lansing had built a 7-2 lead, Francisco belted a three-run bomb in the sixth to make it 7-5. He came to bat in the seventh with the Dragons trailing 7-6 and connected on a two-run homer, his third of the game. Francisco finished the night with seven RBI to tie a team record previously held by Adam Dunn and Joey Votto. In 2011, David Vidal became the fourth Dragon to drive in seven runs in a game.
Francisco spent the entire season with the Dragons and finished the year at .268 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI. He was selected as the third baseman on the league's full-season all-star team. After the season, Baseball America rated Francisco as the eighth best prospect in the Reds organization and third best infield prospect behind only Joey Votto and Todd Frazier.
Francisco moved on to Sarasota in 2008 and hit .277 with 23 home runs in a tough league for power hitters. He added 92 RBI and was again rated as the eighth best prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America, which noted that "Francisco's game is all about power, and he can ball out of any part of any park."
Francisco spent most of 2009 with Double-A Carolina, batting .281 with 22 home runs. He added five more homers in Louisville in just 22 games to give him a career high 27 over the Minor League season. For the second straight year, Francisco was selected as the Reds Minor League Hitter of the Year. On September 14, Francisco made his Major League debut with the Reds as a pinch hitter, and in just his third big league plate appearance, he blasted his first home run against the Marlins, also as a pinch hitter. In 14 games with the Reds, he batted .429.
Francisco spent more than half of 2010 in Triple-A with Louisville and hit .286 with 18 home runs in 77 games. He appeared in 36 games with the Reds and hit .273 with one homer. In 2011, he made the Reds team out of spring training but was eventually sent to Louisville, where he hit .307 with 15 homers in 74 games. With the Reds that season, he played in 31 games and hit .258 with three home runs. Francisco hit a memorable homer for the Reds on September 12, 2011 that left the ballpark and landed on the sidewalk on Mehring Way. It was recorded as the second longest home run ever hit at Great American Ball Park, trailing only a 2004 blast by former Dragon Adam Dunn.
Francisco entered spring training in 2012 out of Minor League options and in an intense roster battle. At the end of camp, the Reds traded Francisco to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for relief pitcher J.J. Hoover. He spent the entire season with the Braves, appearing in 92 games and batting .234 with nine home runs. His best stretch came in April when he hit three home runs in five games.
With the retirement of Chipper Jones, Francisco will battle former Astro Chris Johnson for the Braves starting third base job in 2013.
Since Francisco led the Midwest League in home runs in 2007, no Dragons player has been able to duplicate his 25 home run performance. He is one of only three players in Dragons history to connect on three home runs in one game, joining Pena in 2001 and Byron Wiley in '09. Remembered by fans as one of the top power hitters in Dragons history, Francisco was the 39th Dragons player to play in the Major Leagues. Next up: Logan Ondrusek.
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