On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone


On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- It was the middle of June and Maikel Franco, the Phillies’ top hitting prospect, was batting just .216 in his first season at Triple A.

The slow start at Lehigh Valley came after a stint in the Dominican winter league, where Franco batted .226 with 12 extra-base hits and 34 strikeouts in 47 games.

Still, none of the brass with Lehigh Valley was worried about Franco. Still only 21, Franco was not only at Triple A a bit ahead of schedule, but also there was nothing wrong with his work ethic or mechanics.

Franco, for a lack of a better term, was trying too hard at the plate. Chalk up the early-season struggles to youthful exuberance.

“He’s always going to be aggressive. He’s always going to swing at some bad pitches on occasion,” Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage said.

“The first couple of months, I think he wanted to prove that he belonged here in Triple A and was knocking on the big-league door. But every level is different.”

That hasn’t been the case lately, though. Heading into Friday’s game, Franco was 14 for 52 (.269) in August with two homers and eight RBIs. Those aren’t exactly stop-the-presses numbers, but considering Franco’s batting average fell to .207 heading into July, Franco is starting to find his consistency.

In 37 games in July and August, Franco is batting .318 (48 for 151) with six homers and 31 RBIs. The RBI total -- Franco has 62 this season -- comes from a .273 batting average with runners in scoring position. That’s not bad when noting that Franco hasn’t hit a three-run homer all year and eight of his 11 bombs have been solo shots.

“He’s found his comfort zone,” Brundage said. “He’s come along in the second half, his command of the strike zone is better and he’s swinging at better pitches. That’s why he’s had some success.”

And with success, everything else comes, too.

“You need to have some success to have some confidence,” Brundage said. “He had a couple of good games and settled down and didn’t feel like he had to do too much. Everything fell into place. You need to be comfortable and you need to be confident, and when both of those things came, he started swinging the bat a little bit and it started to carry over.”

There is some speculation that Franco could finish the season with a September callup. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did not rule out the possibility when reporters asked him on Wednesday in Anaheim.

Despite the struggles through the first three months of the season, a late-season callup wouldn’t be surprising for Franco. After all, last season, the third baseman and sometimes first baseman batted .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs in 134 games between High-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He was the winner of the Paul Owens Award, given to the best hitting and pitching prospects in the Phillies’ system, and appeared in the 2013 and 2014 Futures Games during the major-league All-Star Game weekend.

Franco appears to have regained that form. The difference between how Franco played at the beginning of the season compared to the second half was eye opening.

“Night and day,” Brundage said. “His approach is a lot better and the biggest thing is his confidence.”

There also is some speculation that Franco could join the Phillies and take some playing time at first base against lefty pitchers. Certainly that sounds reasonable since Franco has dabbled some at first base, playing 21 games there this season.

But Franco is a remarkable third baseman both with his glove and arm. According to some of the scouts looking in at Coca-Cola Park on Friday night, Franco is the best fielding third baseman in the league. Not only does he have the best arm, but also the softest hands with smart instincts.

Franco has committed just eight errors in 92 games at third base this season. In Friday’s game, he used his glove to slow down a screaming shot and seemed to lure the runner to go for second base as he looked to recover the ball along the third-base line in short left field.

“Defensively he’s been the same all year,” Brundage said.

When the runner went for second, Franco retrieved the ball and fired an off-balance, back-footed throw to second to get the out by two feet.

“He knows he has a big arm,” Brundage said. “Any time you have that kind of arm strength, it makes up for a lot of deficiencies.”

Brundage says Franco’s future is as a third baseman. Franco just wants to be out there, but, yeah, he likes playing third base the best.

“[First base is] not too bad, but I like third base better,” he said. “I’m playing -- I’m involved in every play.”

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

NEW YORK — The clubhouse mood following the Phillies17-0 loss to the Mets Sunday was somber, in part because of the disastrous game that had just wrapped up, but also because of the tragic news of Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

“It was rough. People are devastated. I didn’t even know him and I was crushed,” Phillies starter Jake Thompson said. “I can only imagine how that clubhouse feels. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, to deal with something of that magnitude.”

Both teams paused for a moment of silence before Sunday’s game and the Mets taped a jersey bearing Fernandez’s name and number onto their dugout wall.

“This morning, that was quite a surprise,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the atmosphere of the day. “I don’t think it affected the players once the game started. It was such bad news this morning that everybody was kind of melancholy.”

Fernandez had built a strong track record against the Phillies in his young career, amassing a 2.88 ERA in six starts.

“It’s kind of cliché to say but you look at the start of his career and he could have been a Hall of Famer,” Thompson said.

Asked how he would remember facing Fernandez, Mackanin was succinct.

“He was a helluva pitcher,” he said.

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