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Francoeur may land in spotlight at World Baseball Classic

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - In less than a year, Jeff Francoeur has gone from having 335 at-bats at Double-A Mississippi to being a possible starting outfielder for the United States in the World Baseball Classic.

That's just a typical leap for the precocious Francoeur, a former star at Parkview High School.

After Francoeur made his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves on July 7 last season, he played as if determined to show he should have spent the full year in Atlanta.

He was hitting .413 at the end of July and was still around .350 in late August when his smiling face was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. By early September he was tied for the National League lead in outfield assists. After the season, he was third in rookie of the year voting.

Even so, Francoeur had no dream he would be considered among the top U.S. outfielders for the World Baseball Classic.

Every player was given forms to fill out to indicate their interest in participating in the tournament. The 22-year-old Francoeur figured spots on the World Baseball Classic roster were meant for the established superstars of the game.

''Last year when they gave the sheets out, I didn't even sign one to participate because I didn't think I had a shot to even be considered,'' Francoeur said. ''Then (U.S. manager) Buck Martinez called me and said 'I need you to sign one.' It's an honor. I'm looking forward to it.''

But even when he agreed to be considered, Francoeur didn't think he'd make the final 30-man cut.

''Besides getting called up to the big leagues, that was one of the greatest phone calls I've had,'' he said.

An even bigger surprise would be Francoeur starting in right field for the U.S. That could happen if Toronto's Vernon Wells is limited by a pulled quad.

For most players with only 257 major league at-bats, the idea of representing the United States in international competition might seem intimidating, but Francoeur is always smiling and always confident.

''It'd be cool to play for that kind of team,'' he said. ''To be honest, I was just looking forward to the opportunity to just go out there and represent your country, in whatever role it could be.''

Francoeur finished his rookie season at .300 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs. His 13 assists were second to Cliff Floyd's NL-leading 15. But is Francoeur ready for the world stage?

''Probably not, but it's a tremendous compliment to him and his abilities that he's even considered,'' said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who will join Francoeur on the U.S. team.

''I think obviously had some guys not dropped out, Frenchy might not be on the team. That's not to say he can't step right in and do some of the same things as a Barry Bonds or a Vernon Wells. He can hit 'em as far as anybody and he's a very good defensive outfielder and he brings a lot of enthusiasm.''

Jones said Francoeur will benefit from watching ''some of the game's elite, and how they work before the cameras come on.''

But Francoeur may be more than an observer.

''If he gets the opportunity to play, it might get interesting,'' Jones said. ''He might be starting.''

Proof of Francoeur's status in the Braves' clubhouse is his inclusion in golf foursomes with Jones and John Smoltz.

''It's up to me and Smoltzie to knock him back down a peg if we have to, but we don't have to,'' Jones said. ''He's handled it great. He's one of those kids who's got the world by the tail. He walks around with a smile on his face and loves to play the game. And he loves to work at it and that's a rare quality in this league.''

Jones said he'd be keeping an eye on Francoeur in the tournament.

''It's the opposite; Francoeur will be on him,'' said Braves manager Bobby Cox.

Ideally, Francoeur would enter his first full big league season following his first full major league spring camp. His spring at-bats will be reduced dramatically even if he starts for the U.S., but if he's a backup or part-time starter he'll have to catch up quickly at the end of spring training.

Francoeur said the quality of the playing time in the tournament will make up for the quantity of at-bats he'll miss in spring training.

''Every at-bat for that is going to be like two or three spring training at-bats, because the focus and intensity level will be big,'' he said. ''It's something I'm looking forward to.

''I don't need 50 at-bats. Talking with Bobby, I'll come back here and get 30 or 40 at-bats, and I think that will be plenty.''

Francoeur said a full spring with the Braves ''would be fun.''

Then again, what's the rush?

''Hopefully I'll have 17 or 18 years to do that,'' Francoeur said.