By Marc Farzetta
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Considering the Phillies are in their 132nd season, third base has been an issue for most of their existence. Other than the 18 Hall of Fame years from Michael Jack Schmidt and Willie Jones in the 1950’s, the Phillies have seemed to apply a ‘guess and test’ strategy at the hot corner. Just over the last 15 years there has been false hope (Scott Rolen), bad free agents (Wes Helms), and ‘We Hardly Knew Ye’s’ (Pedro Feliz). When will the long-term solution come to South Philly?
Right now the “Flavor of the Month” is Cody Asche. The 23-year-old showed some promise last year as a guy that could grow into an everyday player. This year, however, he has left a lot to be desired. Asche is batting .219 with 3 home runs, all while hitting safely in just 14 of the 35 games and posting 4 multi-hit games. As for his defense, his six errors, are the third most among MLB third baseman.
Depending on whom you listen to, Asche’s long term position could be on the other side of the diamond at second base, as some are trying to predict when Chase Utley’s career will end. Good luck if you’re one of those people. Utley, 35, is hitting .343, second highest in baseball. For argument’s sake, considering the vesting options, Utley’s Phillies career could conclude after the 2015 season.
The real reason Asche might not be the long-term fix at third base is, Maikel Franco. Franco is a 21-year-old, right handed, power-hitting third base prospect, currently playing for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in the Phillies Triple-A system. He started turning heads last year when he combined to hit .320 with 31 homer runs and 103 RBI’s in Single A and Double A. The crazy thing with Franco is that he got better after moving up a level. His average jumped from .299 in 65 games in Clearwater (A) to .339 in 69 games in Reading (AA).
Franco’s play even earned him an invite to the 2013 Future’s Game during All-Star Weekend. It was in that game where fans would see a reason for keeping Franco in the minors longer than anticipated. As a native of the Dominican Republic, Franco was playing for the “World Futures” and fellow Phils’ farm hand, Jesse Biddle, was pitching for the “USA Futures.” Biddle is known for his major league ready curveball and he gave Franco a three-pitch clinic. The lefty started Franco out with a knee-buckling curve, for a called strike one. Then, a 93-MPH fastball, fouled away for strike two. And then Biddle gave Franco another hook, which Franco couldn’t have hit with a tennis racket for strike three. Franco’s problem was the same as a lot of young bats—he has trouble with the curve. Watch the at-bat here.
Regardless of one at-bat against one big league prospect, Franco got an invite this past spring to join the big league club for Spring Training. There, he batted just .184 in 16 games and was sent to Lehigh Valley (AAA).
Franco got off to an extremely slow start in Triple-A this season, batting just .111 in his first 15 games with no homers, 2 RBI’s and 15 strike outs. However, since then he has been red hot. From April 20th to May 13th (21 games), Franco batted .321 with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs, striking out only 13 times. Defensively, Franco committed just two errors in 78 chances at third base, and did not commit an error in 70 chances at first base.
Some say “numbers don’t lie.” I’ve always said, “Numbers don’t lie, but they sure as heck deceive.” With that in mind, I reached out to Iron Pig’s Beat Writer, Tom Housenick, who writes for the Allentown Morning Call and I asked him, “What is Franco’s biggest weakness now?”
“Age,” Housenick said.“At just 21, his professional experiences have been limited. His natural ability and work ethic have allowed him to move quickly through the Phillies system.”
Natural ability and work ethic? Sounds like a player fans will love, but those fans will have to be patient with Franco. The Phillies are still in a wait-and-see mode with Asche and they are not going to call-up Franco to be a utility player. Instead, the Phillies are using Reid Brignac and Cesar Hernandez to fill that role.
“The [Phillies] are doing [Franco] a real service by leaving him in Triple-A to get at-bats every day.” Housenick said. “He has taken quite a few healthy hacks at the plate, particularly in key situations, but that is born out of excitement and inexperience.”
Improving at the plate is not the only thing the Phillies have wanted to see from Franco. Last season in Reading, they started giving the third baseman reps at first base. In total he’s played just 16 games at first base in his pro career, committing one error, but early reports are positive.
“Defensively, I think Franco has made tremendous strides at both corner infield positions.” Housenick says. “At first base, his footwork is improving as well as the timing and mechanics on feeding pitchers covering.”
Despite advancements at first base and the Phillies appreciation for versatility, Housenick believes Franco “is a major league third baseman.”
Right now, Franco seems to need the seasoning that every hot, young prospect needs, and no one is screaming, “call him up” just yet. However, there will be a time when everyone knows he is ready and people will start to ponder whether or not he can be that long-term solution to the Phillies third base problems. Hopefully, the Phillies are smart enough to know when that time comes.