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.”

Phillies 10, Blue Jays 3: Jeremy Hellickson limbers up, offense continues to hit

Phillies 10, Blue Jays 3: Jeremy Hellickson limbers up, offense continues to hit

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jeremy Hellickson did not shine in his spring debut Sunday, but he didn’t have to.

Hellickson projects to be the Phillies' opening day starter for the second straight year, but with five weeks to go before it all starts for real in Cincinnati, he has plenty of time to put a coat of polish on his game.

The right-hander knocked off some wintertime rust with two innings of work against the Toronto Blue Jays. He gave up four hits and two runs, walked one and did not strike out a batter.

"I felt great," Hellickson said. "I wasn't really commanding the fastball like I wanted, but my arm and my body felt good."

Hellickson went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season and could have opted for free agency in the offseason. However, he surveyed the marketplace and determined he'd be better off taking the Phillies' qualifying offer of $17.2 million for 2017 and trying his luck on the free-agent market next season.

So he's betting on himself.

"That's kind of how I'm looking at it," he said. "It was easy to do that just with the way I felt last year. I think I can definitely repeat or exceed what I did last year."

The Phillies can't give Hellickson another qualifying offer after this season so it's quite possible they will look to deal him in July. But that won't necessarily be easy. The Phils had talks with a number of teams about Hellickson last July and were unable to consummate a deal. It will be tougher this July as Hellickson’s salary has jumped by $10 million. The Phillies may have to eat some of that salary to get a deal they like.

Hellickson was asked if he was ready for another summer of trade rumors.

"No," he said with a wry smile. "But I know it's coming."

He's holding out hope that the Phillies will play their way into contention and the front office keeps the rotation together. He believes it's possible.

"I think we have a really good team here," he said. "Hopefully we're the ones trading for guys at the deadline.

"I've been reading some stuff saying (Aaron) Nola is a No. 5 guy. If Nola's your No. 5 guy, you have a pretty good rotation. I definitely think one through five we can give six, seven, eight strong innings every time out. Then with the guys, we signed for the back of our bullpen, it'll make our jobs that much easier. The days we don't have it, I feel like we can hand it off to those guys after five or six. We're in pretty good shape."

The game
The Phillies beat the Jays, 10-3, on the strength of 13 hits and three Toronto errors. The Phils had eight hits in Saturday’s win over the Yankees.

Cam Perkins, Pedro Florimon and Daniel Nava all had two hits. Rhys Hoskins and Ryan Hanigan both walked twice. Andres Blanco homered. Brock Stassi doubled. Nick Williams had a hit, two RBIs and a walk. Power-hitting rightfielder Dylan Cozens stole two bases.

Cozens is a legitimate stolen-base threat. In addition to belting 40 homers at Double A Reading last season, he swiped 21 bags and was only caught once.

"You've got to like his tools," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's really an athletic guy. He's got good hands at the plate. I think he's going to hit because he doesn't have a lot of excess body movement. He hits a lot with his hands and I think in time he'll cut down on the strikeouts and he'll be an even better player. He looks like a solid defender, good hitting ability, a lot of power and some speed."

On the mound
Ben Lively and Alberto Tirado both pitched two scoreless innings and Pat Neshek and Michael Mariot had one each.

Up next
Jerad Eikchoff makes his spring debut when the Phillies host the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday afternoon.

Clay Buchholz will get the start Tuesday against Baltimore.

Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta has long-awaited meeting with Roy Halladay

Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta has long-awaited meeting with Roy Halladay

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies pitching prospect Nick Pivetta had one of those pinch-me moments Saturday.

He met his boyhood idol, Roy Halladay, at a charity event.

Someone had filled in Halladay that Pivetta had grown up in Canada and had regularly watched Toronto Blue Jays games on television. Pivetta loved watching Halladay pitch, as he talked about a few weeks ago here.

"I got to briefly shake his hand," Pivetta said Sunday morning. "He knew I was like a stalker. He said, 'Oh, right, you're the guy from British Columbia.'"

Halladay, who pitched for the Phils from 2010 to 2013, lives in the Clearwater area. Pivetta said he expected to speak more with Halladay in the coming days.

Halladay was honored at the 44th annual Clearwater For Youth banquet and Pivetta attended with a number of his teammates and Phillies officials. Phillies chairman David Montgomery and his wife Lyn were also honored for their charitable works.

Pivetta will pitch for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March.