In a few weeks, the Phillies will bestow the Paul Owens Award on their top minor-league player and pitcher for the 2013 season.
There’s little doubt that Maikel Franco will be the top position player. He entered Saturday night hitting .315 with 29 homers and 97 RBIs in 124 games split between Single A and Double A this season.
Franco, a native of the Dominican Republic who turns 21 on Monday, projects as the right-handed, middle-of-order bat the Phillies have long needed. It has been well documented that the Phillies have not had an established, homegrown third baseman since Scott Rolen. Franco could be that guy.
And there’s the hitch.
The Phillies’ system is thin on top position players, but third base is one area of depth. Cody Asche, another third baseman, arrived in the big leagues at the end of July and has handled himself well, hitting .264 (14 for 53) with five doubles, two homers and nine RBIs since starting his big-league career 1 for 17. After making three errors in his first five games, Asche had played 17 straight errorless games entering Saturday night.
Obviously, Asche, 23, is far from a finished product, but there’s something there.
Faced with a potential logjam at third, the Phils have begun to experiment with Franco at first base. He played there in both games of Reading’s doubleheader on Saturday. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was on hand to watch Franco, who belted a homer in the first game.
Assistant GM Benny Looper, who oversees the minor leagues, said team officials had been talking about taking a look at Franco at first for about a month.
“The bat is coming quick,” Looper said. “We want to prepare him for possibly playing another position.”
Roving infield instructor Doug Mansolino has been with the Reading club tutoring Franco.
Teaching promising minor-league hitters new positions is not new. The Phils introduced Darin Ruf to the outfield at Double A last season because he was blocked by Ryan Howard at first base. Franco, of course, would be blocked by Howard, as well. Howard has three years and $85 million remaining on his contract.
“We’re just trying to increase our options,” Looper said.
First base would be the only other position Franco could play because of his lack of foot speed. Looper said Franco would play there for the final nine games of Reading’s season.
Will the experiment continue next season, when Franco is likely to open at Triple A?
“I don’t know,” Looper said. “We’ll see how it goes now. Depending on how it progresses, it will be a topic of conversation this winter.”
Moving Franco across the diamond is not necessarily the answer to the Phillies’ third-base logjam. Franco and Asche both have good hands and throwing arms. Asche has much better speed and quickness. It’s still possible that Asche could make a move to the outfield. In fact, Looper said Asche has begun to take some fly balls off the bat in batting practice.
Time has a way of sorting out these things.
“It’s a good problem,” Looper said. “We’ve got a couple of good young players. We’re trying to teach them as much as we can so they’ll be good big-league players.”
Franco does not have to be protected on the 40-man roster this winter so it’s unlikely he’ll get a big-league look in September. Looper said Franco would likely play winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
The team hasn’t decided what Asche will do this winter. He will continue to get the bulk of the reps at third base for the remainder of the season.
Amaro has mentioned the possibility of Asche and Franco both competing for the big-league third-base job next spring.