Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. — You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors, and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26, and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35, and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate, and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017, “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the "man" in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- With his second straight opening day start coming into focus, Jeremy Hellickson delivered his best outing of the spring on Friday.

The right-hander, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, held the New York Yankees to five hits and a run over 6 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.

Hellickson was remarkably economical with his pitches, throwing just 75.

"I'll take that any time," he said.

So would Pete Mackanin.

"He was great," the manager said.

Hellickson will have one more tune-up -- Wednesday -- before his opening day start April 3 in Cincinnati.

"I'm ready," he said.

And that about says it all.

The game
The Phillies lost, 3-2, when reliever Michael Mariot gave up three hits and two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Tommy Joseph had a pair of hits, including the Phils' only extra-base hit, a double.

Freddy Galvis made a couple of nice plays in the field.

"He just shines out there," Mackanin said.

Joseph, the Phillies' first baseman, was involved in a humorous play in the fifth inning. Hellickson made a pickoff attempt on Aaron Hicks at first base. Hicks dived back toward the base but seemed to get stuck in the infield dirt and came up about a foot short of the bag. Joseph, sensing Hicks would easily beat the throw, didn't immediately notice that Hicks was grounded short of the bag and by the time he did, Hicks was able to scurry to the bag.

As fate would have it, the next two batters hit tough ground balls to Joseph's right and he made close plays at second both times. He fired what looked like a 90 mph fastball at shortstop Galvis on the first one. Galvis even seemed shocked how quickly the ball got on him.

"We laughed about the pickoff play," Hellickson said. "But he made two really good plays after that. I told him he totally redeemed himself. That was funny, though."

Saunders OK
Michael Saunders was hit on the right hand by a pitch in the fifth inning. He left the game for precautionary reasons, but was fine. Just a bruise.

"Glancing blow," Mackanin said.

Roster ruminations
The Phillies leave Florida in a week. They have thinned their roster several times and did so again on Friday, optioning pitcher Jake Thompson and outfielder Tyler Goeddel to the minors and reassigning three others (see story).

An even clearer picture of the roster will begin to emerge Sunday as several non-roster players can opt out of their contracts if they are not added to the 40-man roster. That list includes catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday, reliever Sean Burnett and outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Mackanin said the team would have a personnel meeting on Sunday.

"By Monday we should have some more news," he said.

Still unsettled are the bench and bullpen. Typically the team would have five men on the bench and seven in the bullpen, but Mackanin said the possibility of a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen would be discussed.

"I don't want to do that, especially in the National League, but we're talking about it," he said.

The Phillies have a tight 40-man roster, and that could help Andrew Knapp's chances of making the club as a backup catcher/first baseman. He is already on the 40-man roster. Even if Knapp makes it, the Phils could bring along Hanigan or Holaday as a third catcher.

"That's a possibility," Mackanin said. "We discussed it at the last meeting. We're going to discuss it again on Sunday.

"We're trying to come up with the best plan for when we break, and a lot of it has to do with the non-roster players. If we make a move, someone has to come off (the 40-man roster) and that's an issue."

Up next
The Phillies travel to Fort Myers on Saturday to play the Red Sox. The game shapes up as another audition for a spot in the Phillies' bullpen as Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez are the scheduled pitchers.

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- With a week to go before they leave Florida, the Phillies made several roster moves on Friday morning.

Outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who spent all of last season in the majors, was optioned to the minor leagues.

Pitcher Jake Thompson, who made 10 starts in the majors for the Phillies last season, was also optioned to the minors. He is expected to open the season in the starting rotation at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Goeddel, 24, joined the Phillies organization in December 2015 after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He had originally been a first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011.

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must spend an entire season in the majors or be exposed to waivers and offered back to their original club. The Phillies kept Goeddel all of last season, fully securing his rights, but he received only 213 at-bats and hit just .192 with four homers and 16 RBIs.

The news on Goeddel was not completely surprising. The wintertime additions of outfielders Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders had made Goeddel a long shot to make the team.

"I knew going into camp I was going to have to earn my spot," he said. "There's a lot of guys in here that have been playing well. Whatever happened, happened."

Goeddel needs to recoup some at-bats in the minor leagues. The question is: where? The Phillies have three top outfield prospects -- Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens -- who will require regular playing time at Triple-A. It's possible that Goeddel could open the season at Double-A.

Team officials discussed that possibility with him.

"They want me to get more at-bats," Goeddel said. "That's the main thing. Only getting 200 in your age-23 season is not enough.

"They said there's a chance I'm at Reading. I'm not too happy about that but you can't control it. That's where their most openings are and most consistent playing time.

"I want to play every day. It was tough last year playing sparingly. Getting at-bats is going to be great. Obviously, I wish it was up here. But at the end of the day, you can't control it."

Goeddel is still on the 40-man roster and as long as he stays on it can come back to the majors quite easily if a need arises.

"They said that," Goeddel said. "Last year (pitcher Alec) Asher started at Double-A and was called up. They said that in there. They just want me to get at-bats. That was their main thing."

Thompson could be one of the first to return to the majors if a need arises in the starting rotation.

The 23-year-old right-hander was one of five prospects that the Phillies acquired from Texas for Cole Hamels in July 2015. He went 11-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 21 starts at Triple-A last season and 3-6 with a 5.70 ERA with the big club.

The Phils also reassigned pitcher Dalier Hinojosa, catcher Logan Moore and infielder Hector Gomez to minor-league camp.