Francisco's future could be in left

Francisco's future could be in left

CINCINNATI -- The extension of Scott Rolen's contract for two more years last month would seem to have placed a large gold-gloved obstacle between prospect Juan Francisco and the big leagues.

The left-handed slugging Francisco, who hit his way up the Reds Minor League system since 2006 primarily as a third baseman, received a September callup to the Reds last season. But with Rolen firmly in place, it seems as if he'll have to find another position.

Not coincidentally, Francisco spent some time in left field during winter ball in the Dominican Republic. The Reds also happen to have a vacancy in left field heading into Spring Training.

"His time in left field has been somewhat limited, but he has been very good," Reds Minor League director Terry Reynolds said. "He likes to play left field. About a year and a half ago, he told us he was a pretty good outfielder."

In 397 Minor League games, Francisco logged five of them in left field. This winter, with the Cibao Gigantes, the 22-year-old played 36 games at third base, 18 in left field and eight as the designated hitter.

After a slow start this winter, Francisco improved to bat .302 with 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and a .352 on-base percentage in 182 at-bats for the Gigantes. In 131 games combined at Double-A Carolina and Triple-A Louisville in 2009, he batted .295 with 27 homers and 93 RBIs.

"If he is not our top hitting prospects in the organization, he's in the top three," Reynolds said. "It's up to Dusty [Baker] and Walt [Jocketty] where he'll play, but guys that can hit usually find a place to play."

Francisco was 9-for-21 (.429) with one homer and seven RBIs in 14 games with the Reds last year. After the season, Baseball America rated him the organization's fifth-best prospect and noted him as its best infield arm. Francisco, however, does have work to do offensively. He had just 24 walks last season compared to 115 strikeouts in the Minors.

The Reds committed two more years to Rolen, who will turn 35 in April, in exchange for restructuring his 2010 contract. Rolen is also a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, and the club has showed it values the veteran presence in the clubhouse. He's also had a history of injuries that have kept him out of the lineup.

"Our plan is to start [Francisco] at third base in Louisville, unless something happens during Spring Training with the big league club," Reynolds said.

What might happen in left field for the Reds remains unknown. The list of candidates includes Chris Dickerson, Laynce Nix, Wladimir Balentien and prospects Chris Heisey and Todd Frazier.

Francisco will also likely get a look.

"Could he someday be there in left field, who knows?" Frazier said. "In the little time he had in the big leagues, he did well. He's not a problem in the outfield. He's got a good arm and good instincts. If that's where he ends up, everybody would be comfortable with it."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.