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2018 Phillies in review: Maikel Franco may be out of time

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It was an interesting season for the Phillies’ third baseman. Just probably not interesting enough.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s the age-old story:

1. He will change things when gets here.

1a. TRADE HIM HE SUCKS

2. He just needs some guidance.

2a. TRADE HIM HE SUCKS

3. He just needs more time.

3a. TRADE HIM HE SUCKS

4. Well, there he goes.

4a. I TOLD YOU HE SUCKS

5. Wow, look at him hit so well for that other team.

5a. WHERE WAS THIS WHEN HE PLAYED HERE?! PHILLY IS CURSED!

Wherever you’ve landed on Maikel Franco after five years, three full big league seasons, a .252/.303/.435 slash line, and 2.5 WAR, when you talk about the future of the NL East, you don’t see Maikel Franco’s name.

The skyrocketing of young players like Acuna and Soto made the gentle progression of Franco less notable, as encouraging it was. There are potential stars and solid contributors on this team that looked like it could do more than finish under .500, but didn’t, and nobody broke out in the way that Acuna or Soto did, and so we’re left with a world in which the Nationals have a better outlook on the near future than the Phillies.

And at least part of that is because of Maikel Franco, a player once projected by Mike Schmidt to be a future NL MVP.

The point is, you kind of thought Maikel Franco would have been something else by now. And the thing that he had to be became greater and greater with each passing season to make up for all the time he’d wasted not being the cornerstone of the franchise. After watching him develop for three full seasons and exhibit a lot of the same issues without correction, the Phillies may have been willing to settle for his solid and encouraging output from this season. But the time for settling has passed.

Franco didn’t set the league on fire this season, but he put forth his best numbers in a full season, ever. He was put in the awkward position of not just being asked to improve, but improve in a way that would make the acquisition of Manny Machado to play his position look unnecessary.

This could have played out a number of ways. And the way it played out was, Franco made himself more interesting than he has in the last three years. Which presents some clear options, but no clear solution.

One thing we do know is that he did not reach Machado-levels of offensive production this season, though the steps up he did make were visible:

  • 2017: .230/.281/.409, 24 HR, 54 XBH, 41 BB, -0.2 WAR in 154 G
  • 2018: .270/.314/.467, 22 HR, 40 XBH, 29 BB, 0.2 WAR in 131 G

Better. But better enough? This is a question that goes all the way to the top, according to Scott Lauber: “Some Phillies officials are wary of giving up on Franco. Others are increasingly tired of his inconsistency.”

This, sadly, is not really too far off from where we were when the season started.

With Scott Kingery getting reps at third this past spring, as well as a six-year contract before the season started, it seemed that between the Phillies’ farm system and the free agent market, someone was coming for Franco’s job. The only way to force the narrative to change course was for Franco to have a season that at the very least was not a retread of the previous two: a flash of success over a weekend or two that quickly becomes the only exciting thing he’s done in months.

Fortunately for Franco, he outplayed Kingery all season long, and Kingery never sniffed much of third base, anyway. Machado wants to play shortstop, so the Phillies would need to convince him that the hot corner is still cool, and there’s been a bit of downplaying by the Phillies of late that people should be expecting a wave of high-level free agent signings. So the two biggest threats to Franco’s job may not be as menacing as originally thought.

And then, Franco further complicated the matter by having slightly more prolonged patches of success that were not entirely offset by patches of the same old frustration: He had a strong July, but a weak August. At 26, there’s still time for him to figure things out, but he started trying to figure them out three years ago. One time he scored, but didn’t touch the plate.

There were flaws in his fundamental execution, you might say—loose plate discipline has always led Franco to repeatedly unpleasant at-bats—so when veteran Carlos Santana walked into training camp and told the Phillies he didn’t want Franco to leave his side, there was an eyebrow-raising moment of hope. Franco’s power filtered through Santana’s notorious discipline and OBP was a prospect that made Franco interesting again after a 2017 campaign during which he managed to scrape together only one acceptable month following five months of reaching for the Mendoza line. Santana may have made an impact, too; as one of the few infielders to see regular starts (when he was healthy), Franco had only 62 SO in 131 games. Compare that to Santana, who had 93 in 161 games, or Jorge Alfaro, who had 138 SO in 108 games, or even past version of Maikel Franco:

  • 2015: 52 SO in 80 G
  • 2016: 106 SO in 152 G
  • 2017: 95 SO in 154 G

And that raw talent was in there—Matt Stairs kept warning us that a hitter lived inside Franco before he departed to San Diego (and is now available again as a hitting coach, by the by), and defensively, Franco has an arm that can throw accurately across the diamond from a sitting position and an arm that could do that same thing but with the game on the line and an arm that can launch a missile from two steps into foul territory in time to catch a runner.

When the Phillies were at their 2018 peak, Maikel Franco was there, walking them off, jerking his helmet into the air, and becoming a t-shirt. In a season full of strong throws, diving stops, and powerfully struck balls, Franco’s walk-off bomb against the Marlins in early August that became the last time the Phillies looked even a little competitive is probably the top moment of the 2018 season. It was the sort of moment the Phillies had envisioned ever since a young Franco stood on the field at Citizens Bank Park holding his 2013 Paul Owens Award for leading the Florida State League in doubles and sharing the home run lead with Miguel Sano.

Yet even then, as our own Jay Polinsky wrote, the questions were there:

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, varying reports on Franco’s approach have produced different points of view on his projected success at higher levels. He has very good bat speed, but has a failure to recognize off-speed pitches. He is mostly focused on hitting fastballs and hits them well.

But like everyone else on the team, Franco was fully vulnerable to hiccups, brain farts, and mishaps, and he missed some time with back tightness after careening off a wet first base bag on June 25 in Washington. Somehow, he avoided major injury after going headfirst into a camera well while chasing a foul ball in September.

When he wasn’t healing, he was hitting .286 against right-handed pitching, and started seeing the ball particularly well in July, when he hit .330 with a .971 OPS and seven home runs. He struggled against lefties,

For most of the year, he was fine. Serviceable. We were hesitant to latch onto any of his success, seeing as how we’ve all been tricked before by a couple of great Maikel Franco at-bats in a row. At times, he looked genuinely good enough. But with other options available, and the team in need of dramatic change to compete in the the new NL East, Maikel Franco may have run out of time to merely be good enough.