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As Phillies meet Yankees again, Maikel Franco’s career stands in very different place

The 2015 Philadelphia Phillies didn’t have much to be excited about. The team would finish the season with the sport’s worst record at 63-99. In late June, Ryne Sandberg – who was a Hall of Fame player that the Phillies traded to the Chicago Cubs just before he turned into, well, a Hall of Fame player – resigned as the club’s manager. That came 11 days after a humiliating 19-3 loss in Baltimore, one in which Chase Utley personally voiced his displeasure with outfielder Jeff Francoeur throwing over 45 pitches.

One of the few bright spots on the season came in a mid-June series (just before Sandberg’s resignation) at one of baseball’s biggest stages – Yankee Stadium.

A 22-year-old Maikel Franco entered the series having played in just over 50 major league games in his career. He exited the series having left so much of a mark that it gave the Phillies hope Franco would become a core piece for their next great era.

In game one of the three-game set between the Phillies and Yankees, Franco hit third in a lineup that also saw Ben Revere, Domonic Brown and Cody Asche start, while Odubel Herrera got the game off. Franco didn’t waste time establishing himself in the series, as he hit a first-inning home run off of Michael Pineda. After a two-run single in the top of fourth inning, Franco added a two-run home run off of Chris Capuano in the bottom sixth, making it just over the right field wall that future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran was patrolling:

How did the rookie follow up five-RBI performance at Yankee Stadium? With another one the very next night.

In the bottom of the fourth inning of the second game of the series, catcher Cameron Rupp hit his first career home run. Three batters later – at the same stadium that Chase Utley once took CC Sabathia deep twice in Game 1 of the World Series – Franco tagged Sabathia for his third home run of the series. He tacked on three more RBIs in what turned out to be an 11-6 win:

Franco’s first two nights in New York highlighted what was an extremely impressive 80-game stint with the Phillies in 2015. In 304 at-bats, Franco slashed .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs, 50 RBIs and a 10.3 offensive WAR. For an organization that was just beginning a long-overdue rebuild, Franco offered perhaps a sign of light at the end of the tunnel, even if the end of the tunnel wasn’t particularity close.

The Yankees will travel to Citizens Bank Park this week, the first time that the two teams have met since their series in 2015. A lot has changed since that time. The Phillies had a manager resign, parted ways with another, replaced Ruben Amaro Jr. with Matt Klentak, traded Cole Hamels and signed Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana. The Yankees have since parted ways with Joe Girardi, while acquiring Giancarlo Stanton to build around their young core of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres, none of whom were at the major league level the last time these two teams met.

One of the few holdovers from the last time that the two teams met will be Franco, although he couldn’t be at a more different stage of his career than he was the last time the two teams played.

Franco did turn in one of the best games of his career Saturday, recording four hits in game two of a three-game series win over the division-rival Washington Nationals. (However, he did slip on the first base bag in the eighth inning of Sunday night’s game, which’s Kyle Melnick says left him with back tightness.) Still just 25, he’s proven to be very coachable and a strong clubhouse presence. Even in a season where some of his teammates have publicly questioned their playing time under rookie manager Gabe Kapler, Franco has remained the consummate professional, choosing to worry about what he can control.

But even after a possible season-defining series this past weekend, one of the biggest takeaways from the weekend was a report about the future of Franco. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported over the weekend that the San Diego Padres have interest in acquiring Franco. The Padres employ former Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs, who said at the outset of 2017 Spring Training that Franco reminded him of his former teammate, 2002 American League MVP Miguel Tejada.

Of course, Franco turned in a disastrous 2017 campaign, slashing .230/.281/.409 with a -22.3 offensive WAR. That followed up a 2016 season that saw Franco hit 25 home runs and drive in 88 RBIs, but post a 44.5 percent groundball rate and -8.2 offensive WAR. Then-manager Pete Mackanin said that while he didn’t consider 2016 a good season for Franco, he still thought he would “blossom into a perennial All-Star.” It says something about Franco that the team that employs Stairs – who was a color commentator on NBC Sports Philadelphia’s game coverage from 2014 through 2016 – has interest in him.

Then again, it’s a results-oriented league. At the beginning of this season, I predicted that Franco was unlikely to make or break in 2018. Instead, he would flash some improvements, but often look like the 2016 version of himself, a player who has a place in the league but isn’t a regular for a contending team. And that’s almost exactly what’s happening: he’s slashing .256/.300/.423 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs. But he’s got a -4.1 offensive WAR and is putting the ball on the ground at a career-high 52.7 percent rate.

Franco won’t turn 26 until Aug. 26, but things have gotten late still rather early in his Phillies career. Franco saw little playing time at the beginning of the month, with the Phillies employing J.P. Crawford at third base. Crawford suffered a broken hand last week, one that will cost him at least a month. But there’s no denying that in his short big league career, Crawford has both graded out better and looked better at third base than his natural position of shortstop. He hasn’t consistently hit like a major leaguer yet, but the Phillies seem likely to continue to give him the chance to improve at the plate when he returns.

The Phillies, very much in the playoff picture, have also been connected to two veteran third baseman, Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals¬†and Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers. By just about all accounts, the Phillies are unlikely to trade for Baltimore Orioles shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But nearly every league insider – including ESPN’s Buster Olney on Sunday Night Baseball yesterday – seems to think the Phillies have as good of a chance as anyone to land Machado this offseason.

If you think the Phillies are having trouble fitting all of their infielding talent into the lineup now, imagine if they added Machado this offseason. In all likelihood, Machado would want to play shortstop for the Phillies, a desire Jon Heyman of FRS Baseball says the club is willing to accommodate. In that case, Crawford and Scott Kingery would be both competing for time at the hot-corner. The Phillies could trade Cesar Hernandez at some point, which would open up Kingery’s natural position of second base, although it’s hard to imagine that making them a better team. Hernandez, who is under team control through 2020, has led the Phillies in walks three consecutive seasons and is currently walking at a career-high 14.9 percent rate.

Someone is going to see out the development of Franco, whether it’s successful, unsuccessful or somewhere in between. But that team appears significantly less likely to be the Phillies than it did the last time the club played the Yankees.

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