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.

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick on Saturday night made his fourth rehab appearance in Triple A during Lehigh Valley's 13-1 rout of the Louisville Bats in Allentown.

Kendrick went 1 for 5 with a run scored and three strikeouts. He also grounded into a double play and left two runners in scoring position.

It was his second rehab game playing third base. He played third during his appearance in the IronPigs' 8-4 loss Thursday to the Indianapolis Indians. He was 0 for 1 in three plate appearances with a run scored and was hit by a pitch twice (see story).

The Phillies' plan for Kendrick was to have him play a minimum four games at Lehigh Valley. He played left field in two games and third base twice. Pete Mackanin said Wednesday that Kendrick would also get a game at first base but he hasn't gotten a game at first yet.

There is a chance Kendrick could be recalled Sunday before the Phillies’ series finale against the Cincinnati Reds depending on how he feels.

Kendrick has been sidelined since April 15 with an oblique strain. In 10 games before the injury, Kendrick went 13 for 39 (.333) with five extra-base hits and four walks while exclusively playing left field.

Best of MLB: Trout's 16th home run guides Angels past Marlins

Best of MLB: Trout's 16th home run guides Angels past Marlins

MIAMI -- Mike Trout hit his major league-leading 16th homer, and the Los Angeles Angels reached the .500 mark for the 12th time this season by beating Miami 5-2 Saturday.

Trout's first-inning homer into the beer garden in left field was estimated at 443 feet, which pleased a fair portion of the crowd at Marlins Park.

"Hate Fish Love Trout," read a sign held by an Angels fans.

J.C. Ramirez (5-3) limited Miami to an unearned run in seven innings and benefited from excellent defense. Bud Norris, who tweaked his right knee and left Friday's game after throwing only three pitches, gave up a homer to Marcell Ozuna in the ninth (see full recap).

Strasburg K's career-high 15, Nats down Padres 3-0
WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg dominated San Diego with a career-high 15 strikeouts while allowing three hits over seven innings as the Washington Nationals beat the Padres 3-0 on Saturday.

Strasburg (6-1) singled and scored Washington's first run on Bryce Harper's RBI grounder in the third inning. Michael A. Taylor hit a two-run homer for the second consecutive game.

San Diego's lineup offered little resistance against Strasburg the day after Max Scherzer dominated the Padres with 13 strikeouts in Washington's 5-1 win.

Strasburg struck out the side in the third and sixth and had at least two in the first six innings.

The right-hander previously struck out 14 batters twice including his Major League debut on June 8, 2010. He set a personal best by setting down Franchy Cordero in the seventh (see full recap).

Yankees held hitless into 6th by Cotton, but beat A's 3-2
NEW YORK -- Oakland rookie Jharel Cotton held the Yankees hitless until Matt Holliday launched a two-run homer with two outs in the sixth inning that sent resurgent CC Sabathia and New York to a 3-2 victory Saturday.

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was in the right spot for a pair of key catches to boost the AL East leaders, who won with just two hits.

Sabathia (5-2) has won three straight starts for the first time since April 2013. The 36-year-old lefty pitched into the seventh and struck out nine.

Dellin Betances escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth, an inning that included the ejections of A's hitter Jed Lowrie and manager Bob Melvin for arguing strike three calls. Betances closed for his fifth save.

Cotton (3-5) was promoted from Triple-A Nashville before the game. He began the season in the Athletics' rotation but was sent down to the minors May 11 to refine his game (see full recap).

Bautista hits 3-run HR, Blue Jays beat Rangers 3-1
TORONTO -- Jose Bautista hit a three-run homer that backed Marco Estrada, and the Toronto Blue Bays beat the Texas Rangers 3-1 Saturday and matched their longest winning streak this season at five.

Shin-soo Choo homered into the center-field party deck on the first pitch of the game from Marco Estrada, but Bautista hit a two-out drive in the fifth, his eighth home run in May after one in April.

Estrada (4-2) allowed four hits in six innings to win for the third time in four starts. Aaron Loup got one out in the seventh, Ryan Tepera finished the inning and Joe Smith worked the eighth. Roberto Osuna threw a perfect ninth for his ninth save, completing a six-hitter.

Darvish (5-3) gave up three runs and five hits in six innings. He had been 4-0 with a 2.54 ERA in six starts since losing April 18 at Oakland. Texas has lost five in a row for the first time this year (see full recap).