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2017 Phillies Player Preview: Where did you go, Maikel Franco?

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Can he find himself again in 2017?

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies
This is Maikel Franco. He can hit balls far. Will he do more of that in 2017? Let’s all hope so!
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way first: 2016 was not a great season for Maikel Franco. The Phillies presumed third baseman of the future had a rough time last year, leaving all of us to wonder just what the hell happened to the player we were so positive about just a year ago.

So what DID happen last year? A nearly across the board regression in tons of categories. In 152 games, he hit .255/.306/.427 with 25 home runs and 106 strikeouts. In 2015, he played 80 games and hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 homers and 52 strikeouts. So yeah, 2016 was frustrating in comparison to 2015, when we all thought we’d found the heir to Mike Schmidt. (Maybe it’s time to reconsider how excited we get at every single young player doing well, or even just slightly better than we expected. Then again, maybe not.) Franco never looked "lost" at the plate, just overeager. He swung at a lot of junk, and swung wildly, like a tied-up pile of garden snakes suddenly breaking apart. He always looked like he was trying to hit a home run, which just isn’t the best approach.

If you’re looking for a better example for why it could be so frustrating to watch Maikel Franco bat sometimes, Matt Breen of the Philly.com summed it up nicely.

Nearly 80 percent — 79.9 to be exact, according to FanGraphs — of Franco’s batted balls last season were either pulled to the left side or hit up the middle. He hit just four homers last season to right field. Franco admitted that he was simply waiting for inside pitches to pull to left field. That mind-set left him vulnerable. Stairs is guiding him during camp to keep his hits up the middle, which will help Franco spray the ball to both fields.

This happens to young players. They take steps forward, they take steps back. And Franco has come into camp with a new approach that’s earned raves from Matt Stairs and Pete Mackanin. Here’s what Franco told Matt Breen.

"Stairs told me when I go out there and try to do too much, that’s the time that I do something wrong," Franco said. "I just have to be more consistent, repeat the same swing, go out there and have fun."

It’s a good reminder that even though it feels like Maikel Franco has been with us for awhile, he hasn’t. He’s 24 and last year was just his first full season in the majors. He’s still figuring things out, and that he’s taken direction so willingly is just fabulously encouraging. (And let’s just take a second to appreciate Matt Stairs and how much he already seems to be loving his new job.)

So this season, it seems that Franco needs to do both more and less. He shouldn’t wait for those inside pitches anymore, but he also needs to stop trying to hit a homer every time he comes to bat. Honestly, half the battle is knowing what the problems are. With some solid direction and support, Franco has a chance to improve. And this really is the year for him to do it, because there will come a point when the Phillies won’t be able to wait for him to figure it out anymore.

And as unpleasant as that is, it needs to be at least thought about. When the team finally gets to that far off goal, which is to be competitive (good Lord the bar has been set so low after five years of crap upon crap upon crap), will Maikel Franco be part of that core? If the Phillies can get a better third baseman via trade or free agency, will they go for it and trade Franco? It depends on how much better that made up third baseman is, and if the Phillies really think they need more to win than Franco can give them.

We’ve been watching and hearing about these young players for so long that it’s hard to think of that future Phillies team without them. But no matter how much we want it to work out, they won’t be able to take every player they’ve nursed since pro baseball birth with them to the promised land of the second wild-card spot. Or even the promised land of a .500 record. (The bar, she is set so low.) It’s possible that Franco could be one of those players. Of course, we don’t know yet. Which is why this season is pretty important for Maikel.

But that point is in the future. For now, we get to live in the present and see what Maikel Franco is going to do with his 2017. I, for one, am excited.