On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone

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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.”

Hits King Pete Rose on Phillies' Wall of Fame ballot

Hits King Pete Rose on Phillies' Wall of Fame ballot

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies have released their Wall of Fame ballot for 2017 and Pete Rose is on it for the first time.

Baseball’s all-time hits king joins Steve Bedrosian, Larry Christensen, Jim Fregosi, Gene Garber, Placido Polanco, Ron Reed, Scott Rolen, Manny Trillo and Rick Wise on the ballot.

The Phillies had to receive permission from commissioner Rob Manfred to include Rose on the ballot. Rose was placed on baseball’s permanently ineligible list in 1989 after he admitted to wagering on baseball during his time as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The ban precludes him from appearing on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Rose is still on the ineligible list, but Manfred has shown some leniency in recent years and Rose has been able to participate in some ceremonies. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Fame last summer. 

Rose was one of the stars on the Reds’ Big Red Machine, a club that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976. He came to the Phillies as a free agent before the 1979 season. He spent five years with the Phils and his leadership was considered key in getting a talented team over the top on its way to winning the 1980 World Series. 

The Phillies’ Wall of Fame ceremony will take place Aug. 12 at Citizens Bank Park. 

Fans have a voice in the voting, which is has begun on the team’s website -- www.Phillies.com. Fans can select their top three choices and the five finalists will serve as the official ballot for a special Wall of Fame selection committee.

Phillies 6, University of Tampa 0: Prospects put on a show

Phillies 6, University of Tampa 0: Prospects put on a show

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies offered up a sneak peek of their Triple A roster on Thursday and, frankly, it was kind of exciting.

Now, we won't go overboard here. That’s never a wise thing to do when a bunch of solid major-league prospects beat up on a college team in a spring training game. Lessons have been learned over the years. Remember that time Domonic Brown electrified camp when he turned around a 96-mph fastball from Justin Verlander and hammered it like a missile over the right-field wall?

Enough said.

But if things like home run power and bat speed and rocket throwing arms and good infield work light up your radar gun then this was a fun day and an entertaining peek at what's going to be playing 60 miles north of Philadelphia at Lehigh Valley in a few weeks.

Manager Pete Mackanin used a lineup filled with prospects for the team’s annual good-will exhibition game against the University of Tampa.

The Phillies won the game, 6-0. They out-hit UT, 12-2, in the seven-inning game.

“This gave us home-field advantage for next year when we play these guys,” Mackanin quipped afterward.

The skipper was in a good mood and justifiably so.

The kids put on a good show.

“I know it’s a college team, but we looked good all around,” Mackanin said. “We swung the bats well. We played well defensively.”

The Phillies' farm system has improved over the last couple of seasons. There are players at the upper levels -- and even more at the lower levels -- with game-breaking tools. Those tools were displayed in this game.

• Centerfielder Roman Quinn singled and scorched a line-drive home run over the right-field wall. Quinn is working on shortening his swing this spring. The home run came on a quick swing and jumped off his bat.

• Scott Kingery, the 22-year-old second baseman picked by the Phillies in the second round of the 2015 draft, made three nice plays in the field, one to his right, one to his left and one on a double-play ball. He actually projects to open at Double A, but could be a quick mover. Jesmuel Valentin projects to play at Triple A. He's been bothered by a sore shoulder.

• Outfielder Nick Williams was hitless but drove the ball well.

• Dylan Cozens, the lefty-hitting behemoth who swatted 40 homers, the most in all of minor-league ball, for Double A Reading last season clubbed a long home run over the batter’s eye in center field.

“Ryan Howard is the only guy I’ve ever seen do that,” one longtime security guard at Spectrum Field said.

“The ball makes a different sound coming off his bat,” Mackanin observed.

• Top prospect J.P. Crawford booted a ball in the first inning, but that happens. He came across the second base bag like a blur when he teamed with Kingery in turning a double play.

• Andrew Pullin showed his sweet lefty stroke with a scorching base hit to right field. It was one of those line drives that nose-dived into the ground because it had so much hard top-spin on it. Pullin has a short, Jim Eisenreich type of swing, and it will carry him to the big leagues someday, maybe even this year as he would be an intriguing bat to have coming off the bench.

• And then there was catcher Jorge Alfaro. Power -- with his throwing arm and his bat -- is his big tool. He showed it gunning down a would-be base stealer with a laser-beam throw to second and later by lining a pitch off the top of the wall in right-center. Alfaro seemed to simply flick his wrists and drive the ball through a stiff wind. With no wind, it was a homer.

Again, all of this came against a college team. All of these prospects still have miles to go in their development and the rigors of the unforgiving baseball schedule, not to mention pitching that improves with every step, has a way of thinning the field.

But these prospects -- and their tools -- impressed the field boss.

“If they go to Triple A and pound the ball like they did today -- that’s what we’re hoping for,” Mackanin said. “It was a good day to give those guys some confidence. We want to see what they can do and what they can’t do. It was against a college team, but you can get a good glimpse of the future, see what they’re capable of doing. I’m going to try to see the young guys as much as I can early in the spring.

“It’s really encouraging to see these guys. Every one of them has very good potential, more than I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

“I was talking to Charlie Manuel (who sees the entire system in his front office role) before the game and he said up and down the system we have a lot of good players. Perhaps not necessarily blue-chip prospects but enough where you know some of them are going to make their way to the top and this is a good start with what we’re looking at right now.”