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.

Hurts so good: Phillies win third straight with a wacky walkoff

Hurts so good: Phillies win third straight with a wacky walkoff

BOX SCORE

Brock Stassi's toe hurt.
 
Maikel Franco's ribs and head hurt.
 
Pain never felt so good.
 
The Phillies pulled off their most dramatic win of the young season when they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning to beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, at chilly Citizens Bank Park on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).
 
Franco completed a three-RBI night when he smacked a two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single to right to give the Phillies the walk-off win. It was the Phillies' third straight win and fifth in the last seven games as they improved to 8-9 with a chance to sweep a series and even their record at .500 on Sunday afternoon.
 
Franco will be in the lineup.
 
But he might need a couple of Advil to get going.
 
After his game-winning hit, Franco was hilariously chased into right field by his euphoric teammates. The Phillies third baseman absorbed a beat down with Andres Blanco delivering a blow to the top of Franco's head.
 
"You see that -- boom!" Blanco said in the happy clubhouse after that game.  
 
Franco did more than see it.

He felt it.
 
"Whitey got me," he said, laughing and pointing to his head and ribs. "My body is screaming right now."
 
Across the clubhouse, Stassi was feeling Franco's pain. His foot got stepped on during the happy scrum.
 
"My toe is killing me," he said with a laugh.
 
Stassi, too, might need an Advil before Sunday's game. He has a good chance to be in the lineup at first base because Tommy Joseph seems like a candidate for a day off after a tough night. Joseph made a costly throwing error in the top of the 10th inning that helped the Braves take a 3-2 lead.
 
Stassi helped rescue the Phillies from that deficit. His 10th inning single was the first of three one-out hits that the Phils collected against Braves' closer Jim Johnson. With the bases loaded, Johnson made Odubel Herrera look bad with a swinging strikeout for the second out. That brought up Franco. New hitting coach Matt Stairs is constantly encouraging Franco to use the whole field and that's just what the cleanup man did in lacing a liner to the warning track in right.

"To right field! How 'bout that," manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
It was Franco's second single of the night. He would have been awarded a game-winning double if he had reached second base. But, alas, he was chased into right field.
 
In the clubhouse after the game, Franco was told by a club official that he could have had a double had he touched second.
 
Franco's eyes widened in disbelief.
 
"Ah, Mikey!" he said, scolding himself.
 
Then he laughed.
 
Across the clubhouse, Joseph could laugh about the miscue that saw him throw to an empty third base after a sacrifice bunt in the 10th. With everything moving fast, he mistook shortstop Freddy Galvis for a baserunner as Galvis streaked to cover third.
 
Joseph's error put a man on third and the Braves scored the go-ahead run on an infield hit.
 
The ironic part about Joseph's error was the Phillies played excellent defense -- Herrera and Aaron Altherr made great catches in the outfield and Galvis was Galvis at short -- until the 10th.
 
They pitched well, too, from starter Jerad Eickhoff's five innings of one-run ball to the stingy relief work of Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia and Pat Neshek. They teamed on three shutout innings.
 
With his top late-game tandem of Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris in need of a night off, Mackanin asked Edubray Ramos to close it out. Ramos struck out the first two batters in the ninth and was one out away from his first big-league save when Brandon Phillips unloaded on a hanging slider to tie the game at 2-2.
 
Ramos rebounded and got the final out of the inning. As he walked off the field, he covered his mouth with his glove and shouted. Best guess: He said a naughty word. But ultimately his teammates got him off the hook. Parts of it were pretty. Parts of it were ugly. But when the night was over, the Phillies had a win.
 
"It was really a wacky game," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We played well overall, then there was a flurry of activity at the end."
 
Mackanin reached for a bottle of water.
 
"I'm going to drink more of this Smart Water," he said. "It's a happy day."

Best of MLB: Gonzalez, Nationals beat Mets 3-1 for 6th straight win

Best of MLB: Gonzalez, Nationals beat Mets 3-1 for 6th straight win

NEW YORK -- Gio Gonzalez mentioned the tasty Latin food served in the visitors' clubhouse. And the airplanes that fly overhead. And the pretty features of the ballpark.

But if there's a real reason why the Washington lefty is so successful at Citi Field, he isn't saying.

"Any secrets?" he offered. "No."

Gonzalez pitched no-hit ball into the sixth inning to win again at the Mets' stadium, and the Nationals beat New York 3-1 on a drizzly Saturday for their sixth straight victory (see full recap).

Contreras' slam powers Arrieta, Cubs to 12-8 win over Reds
CINCINNATI -- After a sputtering start, the Cubs' offense is finally rolling. And it's no surprise that they're breaking out at Great American Ball Park, a place that's just their style.

Wilson Contreras hit his first career grand slam and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward added three-run shots on Saturday, powering Chicago to a 12-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Jake Arrieta (3-0) returned to the mound where he threw his second career no-hitter last April 21 and struggled mightily at the outset, giving up two homers in the first inning. Chicago's offense pulled him through with another homer-filled game at Great American Ball Park. Arrieta helped with an RBI triple (see full recap).

Homers by Mancini, Schoop carry Orioles past Red Sox 4-2
BALTIMORE -- Just when it appeared Steven Wright had finally gained command of his fluttering knuckleball, the Baltimore Orioles found their groove.

The result: Another early exit for the 2016 All-Star in Boston's 4-2 loss Saturday night.

Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop homered in succession off Wright, Jayson Aquino won his first big league start and the Orioles used one big inning to secure their fourth straight victory (see full recap).

Simmons belts grand slam to lead Angels past Blue Jays 5-4
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Andrelton Simmons hit a tiebreaking grand slam, Tyler Skaggs pitched into the eighth inning and the Los Angeles Angels held off the slumping Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 Saturday night.

Simmons cleared the bases in the third inning off Casey Lawrence (0-2) for his second career grand slam, helping the Angels snap a three-game losing streak and win for the second time in 11 games.

Skaggs (1-1) gave up a run in the first but settled down to hold the Blue Jays to five hits over the next six innings, getting the Blue Jays to hit into three double plays along the way. He was lifted after Ryan Goins doubled to lead off the eighth (see full recap).