At the outset of this past (or current?) offseason, 26-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco didn’t appear especially likely to still be with the Philadelphia Phillies when 2019 Spring Training opened. Entering his second season, we knew Scott Kingery would be with the Phillies, it was a matter of in what role; his natural position of second base, shortstop – where he spent the bulk of his rookie season – or super-utility.
As it turns out, both are in Clearwater for the first workout for pitchers and catchers, and both are competing for time at the same position.
At his first solo press conference of the 2019 season, manager Gabe Kapler told the collective media, which included Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer, that with the Phillies current roster construction, the expectation is that there will be an open competition at third base between Franco and Kingery. Trying to avoid the overused Spring Training cliche of a player “being in the best shape of his life,” Matt Gelb of The Athletic says that Franco “looks like half of his former self.”
Kapler’s quote today may prove to be a moot point if the Phillies ultimately sign four-time All-Star Manny Machado to play third base. Signing Machado, 26, would likely spell an end to Franco’s time with the Phillies, and push Kingery into a true super-utility role. Of course, the Phillies could instead sign six-time All-Star right fielder Bryce Harper, the other top remaining free-agent, which would leave Franco and Kingery to compete for time at third base.
Franco, who is entering his fourth full major league season, had a relative bounce-back season in 2018, following a disastrous 2017 campaign. He slashed .270/.314/.467 with 22 home runs, 68 RBIs and a 1.2 fWAR. He carried the Phillies in July, a month in which they were contending for the National League East, hitting .330 with seven home runs and 15 RBIs. At the same time, Franco also saw an increase in his ground ball percentage and a decrease in his hard-contact percentage in 2018, two negative trends for a power hitter. The Phillies are no longer expecting Franco to develop into a star, as some thought he would after he hit .280 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs in an 80-game stint at the majors in 2015.
Kingery, meanwhile, posted a -19.3 offensive WAR in his rookie season, one of the 10 worst marks in all of baseball. The Phillies didn’t trade second baseman Cesar Hernandez, because at this juncture, he’s a better option than Kingery at that position. But Kingery hit .304 with 26 home runs and 65 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. He’s still just 24. Kapler said last month that he expects Kingery to be the Phillies most improved player in 2019.
In December, Kapler alluded to a change that Kingery, a former second round pick, will make at the plate in his second major league season. Kingery saw 4.04 pitches per plate appearance in 2018, but his .267 on-base percentage and 26 percent strikeout percentage suggest that didn’t necessarily translate to good results. What did translate to positive results was when Kingery put the ball in play – he had a .291 batting average on balls in play in 2018. Kapler said that Kingery may be best served being aggressive early in counts. If he fouls a pitch off, he still could work a deeper count and force the starting pitcher to exhaust extra pitches. Or he may put the ball in play, which usually leads to good things happening.
For much of the offseason, the Phillies seemed to be keeping tabs on free-agent Mike Moustakas. Moustakas, a two-time All-Star, remains a free-agent. But after the Phillies acquired All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto – replacing Jorge Alfaro, who was talented, but you weren’t exactly sure what to expect of him – they appear to be a little more comfortable with the idea of hoping that one of Franco or Kingery figures things out at third base. A Moustakas signing, should the Phillies not land Machado, doesn’t seem as likely as it once did.
Again, if the Phillies sign Machado, Franco may reside in a different zip code in a few weeks. Kingery will still be competing for time, but likely not at third base. But with just over six weeks until the Phillies welcome the defending National League East Champion Atlanta Braves to Citizens Bank Park on Opening Day, the club has to begin to plan for the 2019 season based upon players currently on their roster.
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