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.

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Bats need to stay hot vs. Charlie Morton, MLB's best offense

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Bats need to stay hot vs. Charlie Morton, MLB's best offense

Phillies (34-63) vs. Astros (66-33)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

After a 13-4 shellacking by the AL-best Astros last night, the Phillies look to rebound in Game 2 tonight.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Well that was ugly...
Monday night’s loss was ugly. Words don’t do it justice. So take a look at this tweet instead.

That local hero may need to grow a third hand for tonight’s game, because it doesn’t get any easier for the Phillies tonight. 

It’s Nick Pivetta’s turn to try and cool the Astros’ unstoppable offense. The Phillies may catch a break with All-Star outfielder George Springer — hitting .311 with 27 homers on the year — left Monday’s game in the third inning with a sore quad muscle and may sit out tonight. Superstar shortstop Carlos Correa remains on the DL. But Jose Altuve is hitting .507 — yes that’s a five — in July, so Pivetta has his work cut out for him.

Pivetta flashed his big-league potential with two dominant starts at the beginning of July, but he has come back down to earth in his last two outings, highlighted by a five-inning start in Milwaukee where he gave up nine runs. The rookie’s success came with his high number of fly ball outs. Pivetta was able to get hitters to pop up on weak fly balls and keep them off balance. In his first two July starts, Pivetta had a 25 to 8 fly ball to ground ball ratio, while giving up just four runs in that span. Over his last two starts, he has given up 12 runs while inducing just 17 fly balls and 17 groundouts. Fortunately for Pivetta, the Astros have the sixth-most fly outs in MLB this year.

2. But, there is hope 
There is hope for the Phillies, though. Before last night’s debacle, the team was on a bit of a hot streak. The Phillies are 4-2 in their last six games, while averaging 5.7 runs since the All-Star break. That’s tied for the seventh-most runs scored in all of MLB during that span. That’s quite an improvement from 29th before the All-Star break. Last night’s loss ended a seven-game streak of at least five runs scored for the Phillies. Something they haven’t done in a single season since 2005.

The Phillies will need to keep up the hot bats to keep up with the Astros tonight.

3. Morton returns
And to do that, the Phillies will have to hit against former Phillies’ great Charlie Morton. Don’t remember the salt man? That’s probably because he only pitched in four games for the Phils in 2016 before tearing his left hamstring in April and missed the remainder of the season. 

Now he’s with the Astros, and has excelled in the back end of the rotation. In 13 starts, the 33-year-old is 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA. However, he is averaging three walks allowed per start, something the Phillies’ should look to capitalize on if Morton struggled with his command early.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: 
Odubel Herrera has really turned his season around as of late. Herrera is back to his All-Star 2016 form, hitting .524 over the last week with four doubles and seven runs scored. Perhaps most noticeable is Herrera's newfound plate discipline. No longer flailing wildly at pitches in the dirt, Herrera has worked five walks in his last 21 at-bats. 

Astros: It's impossible not to mention Altuve here. His insane month of July (.507/.554/1.314) has made him the AL MVP favorite. Standing at just 5-foot-6, Altuve can do it all, including hit for power (15 home runs in 2017). 

5. This and that
• Charlie Morton's 4.18 ERA would be second-best among Phils' starters. Aaron Nola leads the rotation with a 3.38 ERA.

• Maikel Franco's recent hot streak has helped revive the Phillies' offense. Franco is hitting .300 since the All-Star break with as many walks (5) as strikeouts.

• The Astros have a 17-game cushion in the AL West. The Phillies are 25 games back of the Nationals in the NL East.

Phillies prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

Phillies prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

BOX SCORE

A lot has changed since the Houston Astros last came to Philadelphia in 2014. Back then the Astros were a rebuilding team on their way to a 92-loss season after reaching triple-digit losses the previous three seasons.

Now, the Astros' rebuild is complete and they have the best record (66-33) in the American League and the second best in the majors after the Los Angeles Dodgers (68-31).

The Astros have a powerhouse offense that ranks first in the majors in runs (594), hits (1,105), doubles (222), homers (165), batting average (.293) and OPS (.863).

Those numbers burned the eyes of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin when he got a look at them before Monday's game.

"When I look at their stat sheet and look at all their numbers, I really don't want to look at it," he said. "But once again, good pitching will stop good hitting, so if we can get good outings from some of our pitchers, we have a chance."

The Phillies did not get a good outing from their starting pitcher, nor did they get good work from the bullpen, as they lost Monday's series opener, 13-4 (see Instant Replay).

The Astros pounded out 18 hits and eight of them were for extra bases.

And they did all that damage without star shortstop Carlos Correa (.320/20/67). He is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his thumb. Also, All-Star George Springer (.311/27/66) left the game in the third inning with a sore quad muscle.

So it could have been worse if the Astros had played with a full deck.

"We’ve been playing pretty well recently and these kinds of games happen," said Mackanin, whose club is 5-5 after the All-Star break. "Unfortunately, this was one of those games.

"Houston is as good a team as we've seen. They have nine guys with double-digit home runs. They are a real aggressive team, one of the best, if not the best, that we’ve seen. They have aggressive hitters. You can't make mistakes against them. Early in the count, they hack at those mistakes. They don’t strike out a lot.

"It was noticeable that they go up there ready to hit every pitch. They're not taking to get a look at the pitcher. If you make a mistake over the plate, they look to hurt you, to do damage."

The Phillies trailed 12-1 in the seventh inning before rookie Nick Williams tripled home three runs. Williams has three triples and 18 RBIs in 72 at-bats with the big club.

Cesar Hernandez had three hits and Odubel Herrera added a pair to raise his July batting average to .364 (24 for 66).

"Other than that, there weren't a lot of bright spots," Mackanin said.

Phillies starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, pitching against his former team, worked into the fourth inning, but had his outing cut short by a one-hour, 52-minute rain delay. Velasquez might not have pitched deep into the game even in good weather conditions. He struggled with location and did not use his secondary pitches effectively. He gave up a pair of home runs (to Brian McCann and Alex Bregman) in the second inning, both on fastballs.

Mackanin was rather blunt when asked how he thought Velasquez pitched.

"He gave up six hits, two home runs, in three innings," Mackanin said. "His velocity was OK, but if you don't locate against a team like this, you're going to get hurt."

Velasquez walked three. One of those walks turned into a run.

"They were hunting fastballs," Velasquez said. "Maybe if I utilized my secondary pitches more I would have slowed their bats down and protected my fastball better. They hammer mistakes.

"I probably could have done a better job if I executed. Correa was out of the lineup. If he was in there he probably would have done some damage, too. This team is hot. They're in first place for a reason. They're very selective. They are in the zone. They're locked in."

Ricardo Pinto picked up Velasquez when the game resumed in the top of the fourth inning. He was tagged for seven hits and six runs in 1 1/3 inning. Three of the runs were unearned.