NEW YORK — The free-falling Mets finally made a move, trading Ryan Church to the Atlanta Braves for Jeff Francoeur and cash on Friday in a swap of outfielders who had fallen out of favor with their teams.
The rare deal between NL East rivals came with both teams below .500. The Mets are desperate for a spark with stars Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado on the disabled list and also are looking toward 2010, preferring Francoeur’s right-handed bat and strong throwing arm in right at spacious Citi Field.
“What’s just weird is you imagine to be traded, but you never imagine to be traded to maybe your biggest rival,” Francoeur said in Denver, before the Braves played the Rockies.
Discussions began only this week, and Church was told when he came in from batting practice Friday, just before he was to get taped up. The Mets receive $270,218 as part of the trade to equalize salaries.
“As a front office, we’re going to continue to try to do things to, you know, shake it up a little bit, not just be complacent and say this is it,” Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. “I’m hoping that between here and the All-Star break, you know, we have other things that we talk to teams about, and they may come to reality.”
Church is hitting .280 with two home runs and 22 RBIs. A solid right fielder with a good arm, he got off to a terrific start last year in his first season with the Mets before he was slowed by a second concussion. Church collided with teammate Marlon Anderson during spring training, then was accidentally kneed in the head by Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar while trying to break up a game-ending double play at Atlanta on May 20.
Church was stunned by the deal.
“Shocker. Came out of nowhere,” he said outside the Mets clubhouse. “The good thing is I get to play these guys next week.”
New York opens the second half at Turner Field on July 16. Church immediately sent Chipper Jones a text message.
“They’re going to have to change up a lot of signs. I know everything,” Church said. “I’ll definitely fill them in.”
Church tried to play after his second concussion last year but struggled to shake the symptoms.
“Around the league, people are saying it could have been handled different, but it was just one of those things where we were in uncharted waters,” he said. “Being a baseball player, you want to play. You want to be there every day. And it just so happened it didn’t help.”
Mets manager Jerry Manuel never seemed to warm up to him, and seemed particularly peeved after Church missed third base while running home earlier this season in a game New York eventually lost. The 30-year-old is in his sixth major league season and is a career .273 hitter.
“He told me, he sat down in spring training, that he was going to be tough on me regardless,” Church said. “Maybe he was trying to motivate me. ... There was never anything that was negative.”
Braves general manager Frank Wren likes Church’s bat, “especially against right-handed pitching.”
“He gives us an additional offensive spark and plays very good defense and can also play center field,” he said.
An Atlanta native, Francoeur is hitting .250 with five homers and 35 RBIs. He was a favorite with Braves fans and management during his first full season in 2006, when he hit 29 home runs with 103 RBIs while playing all 162 games.
Francoeur hit .293 with 19 homers and 105 RBIs in 2007, when he won a Gold Glove, but slumped badly last year and was demoted to Double-A Mississippi for three games last July, a move that he found embarrassing. He was benched for three games last weekend by Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
“Frenchy was our guy from right out of high school. It’s hard to move guys when you sign them like that and when they’ve been around,” Cox said. “Maybe a transition over there in a Mets uniform will get him going again and we can get Ryan Church going.”
Francoeur makes $3,375,000 and is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. Church, who makes $2.8 million, also can become a free agent after the 2011 World Series.
Francoeur stays healthy — he played 162 games in 2007 and 2008 and 152 last year — a plus for the Mets. But he struck out more than 100 times in each of the last three seasons and joins a batting order in which David Wright entered Friday with 84 strikeouts already.
“Plate discipline has been an issue with Jeff,” Minaya said. “I do believe because he’s 25 years old, I think that he can improve that.”
Francoeur had three doubles against the Rockies on Thursday, making the timing of the trade a surprise. He likely will start for the Mets in right field tonight in New York — where he’ll face fans he once found hostile.
“I’ve always gotten my hazing and I’ve hazed them when I was playing in the outfield,” he said, “but, hopefully, if you go up there, you play hard and lay it on the line, they’ll get behind you.”