It meant nothing, this Oct. 3 game between the Phillies and Marlins. The Phillies were close to sewing up the notorious title of “worst team in baseball,” and playing in the second game of a doubleheader, only needed one loss.
What didn’t mean nothing was this plate appearance for Maikel Franco. The rookie third baseman who in 2015 assumed his spot as a future cornerstone – by swatting 13 home runs and slugging nearly .500 in 326 previous appearances – just cranked a pitch into the center field shrubbery. It was his 14th home run of the year, but more importantly, that Oct. 3 game was his first start since August, since being hit on the wrist by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch in Arizona. On Oct. 3 Franco went 2-for-4, driving in two. He hadn’t missed a beat.
Franco came to Philadelphia on May 15, after Cody Asche sputtered quickly enough at the hot corner. The then-22-year-old Dominican promptly made himself at home, hitting his first career home run two days later against the Diamondbacks. That began a small surge of contact, in which Franco also doubled and tripled. After a small slump in late-May, Franco came alive, hitting .432 with an .841 slugging percentage from June 2-13. A second, minor surge came June 19-23, during which Franco hit .619 with a .667 on-base mark and 1.143 slugging mark in 24 plate appearances.
The climax of that run: two games in Yankee Stadium.
It’s overblown to say a player’s performance in the Bronx signifies something greater for his career, but Franco’s stretch on June 22 and 23 had fans wide eyed in anticipation of a scorching future. On June 22 he pulled a low Michael Pineda pitch over the left-field fence, singled into a fielder’s dive, singled into the right-center field gap, then blasted an inside fastball into the top deck of the left-field bleachers. On June 23, Franco muscled a CC Sabathia pitch to the opposite field for a three-run home run, then to cap it off, slashed a liner down the left-field line with two on in a tie game in the ninth. A game-winning double.
Oh, and the double came after being hit by a pitch. Maybe a little nudge to a rookie? Franco doesn’t have time for it.
After that showing Franco settled down. He flashed less power in July but started to heat back up in August. He was hitting .277 with a .338 on-base percentage and .490 slugging mark before being hit on the wrist. A timetable that had him out for the season shortened up, and with some rehab, Franco came back to play the final series of the season. He went 3-for-9 with the home run, a walk and two strikeouts.
It’s good practice to wait 1,000 plate appearances before really placing judgments on highly touted young players. Sometimes that holds true, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the point is not to make snap judgments with short sample sizes at a major league level.
Still, after just 393 plate appearances – including a cup of coffee in 2014 – signs are encouraging that Maikel Franco can hack it at a major league level. The jury is still out on whether he is a middle-of-the-lineup threat or a solid starter who can hit in the 2 or 6-7 hole, but at times in 2015, Franco resembled a true 25-30-home-run player. The offense is there and has improved year to year. That’s a great sign.
The biggest knock on Franco has been his defense, which can play below-average most of the time. Truly Franco lacks that necessary speed to get tougher outs at third base, but he’s capable at making the normal plays. Moreover, Franco possesses a strong arm at third, probably as strong as that of Pedro Feliz, who was known for his defensive prowess. While we can’t think Franco ever turns into a cat-like defender at third, his substantial offensive ability, coupled with his good arm, mean he can hang at the hot corner for a number of years.
Franco played a little at first base this season, too, and while the Phils may not explore that in the near future, it’s something to keep in the back pocket.
As for 2016, Franco is one of the only sure things on the roster: your everyday third baseman who will be given every opportunity to be an all-star. He’s a thrill to watch, has improved measurably with each year and experience, and can help point the way to the next great Phillies team.