Rest, Manuel spark red-hot Maikel Franco

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Rest, Manuel spark red-hot Maikel Franco

MINNEAPOLIS – No one thought it was going to come easy for Phillies prospect Maikel Franco right out of the gate this season.

Yes, he had a huge season in 2013 -- .320/31/103 -- but he was making the jump to Triple A after less than 300 plate appearances above the Single A level and he was still just 21 years old.

Conventional wisdom suggested the young third baseman from the Dominican Republic would take his lumps for a while and he did. He was hitting just .209 after an 0-for-5 performance on June 29. That’s when Dave Brundage and Sal Rende, the manager and hitting coach, respectively, for the Phillies’ Triple A Lehigh Valley club, suggested that Franco take a couple days off.

“They told me to just watch the game,” Franco said at Major League Baseball’s Futures Game on Sunday. “Relax. Relax your mind. It was good for me.”

Sure was.

Franco went 4 for 4 his first day back in the lineup and has been on a tear since.

He entered his second straight trip to the Futures Game, the Who’s Who event of elite baseball prospects, hitting .390 with a 1.126 OPS over a nine-game stretch. In that span, he had six doubles, three triples, one home run and 11 RBIs.

That’s the thunder Phillies officials came to expect last season.

“It was a little bit harder because you're facing really good pitchers,” Franco said of the jump to Triple A. “Some of those pitchers have played four years in the big leagues and come down here. For me, it’s a little bit harder.

“But everything is going good right now. I’m enjoying the games.”

Coming out of spring training, Phillies officials wanted Franco to work on shortening his stroke and using the middle of the diamond. One scout who has watched Franco this season said it was clear Franco was working on those adjustments in batting practice but he was inconsistent in taking them into games.

Lately, Franco’s swing has been coming around and that has led to the one thing all good hitters have …

“I’m feeling confident in my game,” he said.

Franco spoke glowingly about the tutoring he has received from Rende.

“He’s a good hitting coach,” Franco said.

Franco also revealed that his hot streak coincided with a visit from Charlie Manuel, the former Phillies manager who has gone back to his roots, quietly working with young hitting prospects.

“I enjoyed it,” Franco said. “Charlie was there for four days.”

Franco said Manuel made some suggestions on his stride and the positioning of his hands. Manuel also went to work on the area between Franco’s ears.

“He told me I was a good hitter and don’t feel pressure,” Franco said. “He told me to stay positive. It was good.”

Franco flied out to center field twice in Sunday’s Futures Game. His World team lost to the U.S. team, 3-2.

Now he returns to Lehigh Valley, looking to keep his hot streak alive. He hopes to produce well enough (and play well enough at third base) to get a look in Philadelphia in September. The Phillies could be deep into a retooling effort by then, so it might make some sense to let Franco get a taste of the majors -- provided he has a strong finish to his minor-league season.

Franco can also play first base. It is unclear which position he will play in the majors. If the Phillies could somehow move Ryan Howard after this season -- they’d have to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that would remain on his contract to make that happen -- Franco could be in play at first base next season. It’s also possible he would stay at third. Team officials have talked about the possibility of Cody Asche playing left field for a couple of years.

These are questions that will be answered down the road. For now, Franco just needs to keep playing and swinging the bat as well as he has recently.

“I would love to come up in September, why not?” Franco said. “That’s where I want to be. Hopefully I will be ready.

“My plan is to stay true, keep working hard, and have fun. We'll see what happens.”

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Outfielder Austin Jackson took an opportunity with the Cleveland Indians and ran with it.

Jackson was informed on Sunday that he has made Cleveland's opening-day roster, giving the AL champions some outfield depth in case Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley aren't ready for the start of the season.

The 30-year-old Jackson signed a minor league deal with the Indians in January. He missed the early part of training camp as he recovered from left knee surgery, but Jackson has made up for lost time by batting .375 with one homer and five RBIs in Cactus League games.

Jackson played in only 54 games last year with the Chicago White Sox before undergoing knee surgery to repair torn meniscus. He's played in the postseason with Detroit and the Cubs.

Jackson had an out clause in his contract that had to be exercised by Sunday (see full story).

Rockies: Mark Reynolds' contract selected from Triple A
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have selected the contract of first baseman Mark Reynolds from Triple-A Albuquerque.

Reynolds figures to be the starter at first in the absence of Ian Desmond, who is out with a broken left hand.

The 33-year-old Reynolds hit a career-best .282 last season with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. He was limited to 32 at-bats after Aug. 11. He broke a bone in his left hand while swinging a bat, had surgery on Aug. 15, was activated Aug. 31 and broke his left wrist when he was hit by a pitch on Sept. 18.

He re-signed with Colorado in February on a minor-league deal.

Also Sunday, Colorado placed right-hander Chad Bettis on the 60-day disabled list as he deals with testicular cancer. There is no timetable for Bettis' return.

Tigers: Lowe released; Jimenez to minor-league camp
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Detroit Tigers have released right-handed reliever Mark Lowe, one of several cuts before Sunday's spring training game against Toronto.

Detroit also optioned catcher John Hicks to Triple-A Toledo, and the Tigers reassigned right-handers Joe Jimenez, Ruben Alaniz, Logan Kensing, Arcenio Leon and Edward Mujica, infielder Dominic Ficociello and outfielders Anthony Gose and Juan Perez to minor league camp.

The Tigers signed Lowe to an $11 million, two-year contract before last season, but he was ineffective in 2016, going 1-3 with a 7.11 ERA in 54 appearances. He had a 5.19 ERA in nine appearances this spring.

In 2015, Lowe went 1-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 57 games with Seattle and Toronto.

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ever since Andrew Knapp earned his way onto the Phillies' 40-man roster back in November, it seemed to be a fait accompli that he would end up as the team's backup catcher on opening day.

But that's not to say he didn't have to shine just a little bit in spring training to validate his standing.

Knapp got off to a slow start in Grapefruit League play -- one hit in his first 22 at-bats -- but he began the final week of camp with his best game on Sunday. He went 2 for 4 with a two-run home run and threw out two runners on the bases.

"It's been nice to get some games back-to-back," Knapp said. "I struggled a little bit early just taking a lot of time off in between at-bats and behind the plate. But this past week, I've been able to get in there a lot and start to get in the flow of the game a little bit. I think I was trying to do too much early on."

The increased playing time is likely a sign that Knapp will end up on the 25-man roster. The Phils have two non-roster veteran catchers -- Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan -- in camp. Both can opt out of their minor-league contracts in the coming days if they aren't going to make the club.

Phillies officials are looking to make as few subtractions from the 40-man roster as they can in constructing their bench and bullpen (see story). That's why things are looking good for Knapp.

But he's taking nothing for granted. Though Phillies officials were scheduled to meet Sunday evening "to try to get as close to the finalization as we can," in manager Pete Mackanin's words, opening day rosters don't have to be officially submitted until next Sunday, a day before the season opener.

"I'm just trying to keep my head down and not think about it that much," Knapp said. "The playing helps a lot. When you're just sitting on the bench, you're thinking about a million things. But when you're in the game, you get away from that a little bit. Just go out there, play, and enjoy the game. It's helped a lot."

The rest of the bench
Andres Blanco and Aaron Altherr are both set on the bench. Knapp looks good. That leaves two open spots, presuming the Phillies go with a five-man bench.

Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava, both non-roster veterans, have played extensively in recent days. That suggests they could be the lead candidates. If that's the case, Brock Stassi, who has not played the last two days, could be on the outside. Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp and he has played well. He's also on the 40-man roster and that would play in his favor. However, at 22, he might be better served to get regular playing time in Triple A.

Neither Coghlan nor Nava is on the 40-man roster so the Phils would have to clear spots to carry them.

Coghlan made an excellent running catch against the wall in left field Sunday.

The game
The Phillies had 15 hits and six of them were for extra bases, including homers by Knapp and Maikel Franco, in their 6-3 win over the Pirates.

Clay Buchholz, who had not pitched in 10 days after traveling home for the birth of his son, was rusty. He gave up five hits and three runs in 3 1/3 innings. He walked four and struck out four.

"Four walks is definitely subpar, but, you know, it's still spring training," Buchholz said.

The right-hander has allowed 11 runs over his last 14 2/3 innings.

"You can't honestly say he's had a good spring, but he was up close to 90 pitches today so pitch-count-wise he's doing fine," Mackanin said. "He hadn't pitched in 10 days so I can understand his lack of command. Once he's into a rhythm I think he'll be fine."

Venditte shines
Ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings.

"It's fun to watch Venditte pitch," Mackanin said. "If I'm up in the stands and I see him throw four pitches from the right side and I reach over to get my Coke or beer and I look back up and he's throwing from the left side I will start wondering how many beers I had. He's fun to watch."

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Monday night. Vince Velasquez will start against Toronto's Aaron Sanchez.

The Phils could have several roster moves during the day as the 25-man roster continues to come into focus.