Raising Questions

Will Franco benefit from less-pressured lineup spot?

The season is still young and the Phillies are still very much in the middle of a rebuild, but the pressure is on for Maikel Franco. After a season in which he regressed offensively, both Franco and the team were looking forward to a rebound season.

That hasn’t yet happened.

Franco is hitting just .212/.284/.364 through 35 games played. While he does have 25 RBI, seven more than this time last season, that number is a bit padded thanks to two grand slams. To make matters worse, Franco has committed five errors at third base.

He has become more disciplined at the plate averaging around 3.9 pitches per plate appearance compared to 3.6 last year, and his 8.3 walk rate is up from 6.3 in 2016. He’s also has had some bad luck.

Still, it’s clear by the number of helmet-popping hacks he has taken in the last few weeks that Franco is off-balance. New hitting coach Matt Stairs has made it is mission to get Franco right, at least mechanically. Mentally, however, Franco is his own worst enemy.

A rebound season for a young player trying to prove himself is stressful enough. Add the pressure of being the cleanup hitter on a rebuilding team and even the most talented player can become crippled.

Sensing this, recently extended Pete Mackanin finally moved Franco down in the batting order to sixth on Saturday against the Nationals, and fifth on Sunday. He went a combined 2-for-8 with a run scored.

So, who should bat cleanup?

Tommy Joseph might be the most obvious choice. After a dreadful first month, Joseph is hitting .400/.512/.886 with four homers, nine RBI and seven walks in May. He went 3-7 with two runs scored, two RBI and a walk in two games batting cleanup this past weekend. Michael Saunders also had himself a night in the fourth spot in Game 2 of Sunday’s double-header, going 2-for-3 with three runs scored and a walk.

Aaron Altherr, a player who is proof a mechanical adjustment can work wonders, has been too valuable batting third to mess with. A surprising option can be Cesar Hernandez. Last season, the entire Delaware Valley would’ve laughed at the mere mention of Hernandez batting cleanup. But after putting on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and a leveled-out swing, Hernandez has shown the ability to hit with power and use the whole field. He’s pulling the ball more, which has resulted in a career-high 26.6% fly-ball rate.

Howie Kendrick seems about ready to return after being sidelined since April 15 with an oblique strain. Adding him back in the mix at the top of the lineup will perhaps give Mackanin the extra push to take a chance with his lineup.

After all, what’s Mackanin have to lose? Not much.

As for Franco, he can make changes mechanically, take extra batting practice and hit lower in the lineup, but if he doesn’t fix the problems above the shoulders, he’s in for a long, helmet-popping season.

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