The Phillies came into the 2014 season with relatively little to look forward to. The team had just finished a miserable 73-89 campaign, good for 7th worst record in baseball, and played the kind of ball that keeps the attention of only the most loving parents at little league games. Television ratings were terrible, attendance only slightly less so. Only the most
unrealistic optimistic projections suggested competitiveness. The less optimistic projections, as it turns out, were the most accurate.
One of the few positive things Phillies fans did have to pin their hopes on was 21 year old Maikel Franco, who came into 2014 as the 17th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. MLB.com had him at #26, John Sickels #35, and Baseball Prospectus at #52. He was coming off a season where he destroyed high-A and double-A ball, posting a combined .320/.356/.569 line. He hit everything, and hit it for power.
There were, however, some red flags. His approach needed work, as you can tell by the paltry .036 difference between his BA and OBP, and his swing had a hitch -- the infamous "arm-bar" -- that was thought to be everything from irrelevant to hugely concerning depending upon the prospect prognosticator one asked. Franco was invited, flaws and all, to camp this spring and immediately turned heads.
As it turns out the flags were signs of some real problems. Sent to Lehigh Valley to start the season Franco played 78 games through June 29th, a span of 329 plate appearances. His slash line was a less-than-robust .209/.267/.318. The golden prospect, it seemed, was actually the pyrite prospect (like the vast majority of prospects tend to be, actually).
Then something wonderful happened. Franco, at the suggestion of manager Dave Brundage and hitting coach Sal Rende, took a few days off. Also during that time, a familiar former manager and hitting guru spent four days in Allentown. This picture was taken on July 2nd, Franco's first game back in the lineup.
Manuel in Allentown, 7/2/14 - Photo credit: Me
That evening Franco went 4-4. From July 2nd through his call-up on September 1st Franco slashed .324/.344/.580. The hard contact was back, as was the power. Jim Salisbury later reported that Charlie Manuel had used his time in Allentown to, in part, mentor a struggling Franco. This is an example of one of the great joys of following baseball. Franco was promoted to a new level, struggled mightily, and then was able to make some adjustments after which he was back to hitting the cover off the ball as he had the previous year. And though we must remain wary of assigning a narrative to his mid-season turnaround, it would similarly be a mistake to completely dismiss it as a simple coincidence. Maybe the break and instruction didn't help, but maybe it did.
It's a reminder that for all the advanced sabermetrics that we use to quantify the skill and production of players, there remains a significant part of the learning curve that can't easily be quantified. There's no stat or metric I know of that can quantify the ability to absorb instruction, or make adjustments to new types of opponents. If one can do those things, if a player can gain some insights from his coaches and mentors, and can couple that information with his tremendous physical abilities you just might end up with a special ballplayer. It seems, at least at the AAA level, Franco has that skill.
During his September cup of coffee Franco again struggled, hitting only .179/.190/.214 over 58 PA. He was surprisingly agile in the field, turning in some highlight reel plays, and was surprisingly not terrible on the bases. Franco is still only 22, has shown he has the ability to adjust, and has oodles of talent. Regardless of the quality of the overall team next season -- and early indications are that next year will be not good times -- Maikel Franco will be a player that warrants watching.
To the fake questions:
If I had traded you midseason, would the team have done better or worse?
As I contributed almost nothing offensively, and did so only after September 1, my presence wasn't really an issue. If you had traded me midseason you'd have been an idiot, as that was when my value was at its nadir. That said, the team would probably have done better because I'm one of the few marketable players who would have been able to land some major-league ready talent.
All my options are open for next year. Should I trade you, release you, or keep you?
Keep me, clearly. We're going to be bad, and there's no better time to get a young guy a lot of at bats and seasoning than in a terrible season. Well, that's a lie, the best time to do it is in a great season where the team is so good that it doesn't matter if one position is a work in progress. But our situation is, I guess, something like the second best situation in which for me to learn on the job.
Do you think you will be part of the next great Phillies team?
I just turned 22, so I sure as hell hope so! The only way I don't see that happening is if you decide to ship me and a number of my co-prospects off to Miami when they realize they're not re-signing Giancarlo Stanton or some similar type deal.
Overall, explain to me how your time with the Phillies has been the highlight of your life.
I'm being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to play baseball at the highest level in the world. It's hard to imagine things being a whole lot better.
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, how do you rate on the "it's my fault we're in the freaking mess and finished in last place" scale?
Zero. Come on, Ruben, did you miss the part where I had 58 major league plate appearances? Maybe I can bump it up to like 0.5, if you want to consider my early season struggles at AAA a reason why I couldn't come up immediately and help the big league club, but, I was playing in a league where I was nearly 6 years younger than the average player, so I'm not going to be too hard on myself for that.
Good chat, Ruben. See ya in spring training.