Franco hoping for a major role with Phillies

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Maikel Franco says his goal in spring training is to 'show everyone what I can do.'
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Maikel Franco says his goal in spring training is to 'show everyone what I can do.'
Posted: January 17, 2014

DARIN RUF hit a walkoff home run last March to help the Phillies to a Grapefruit League win . . . and then was promptly sent to minor league camp after the game.

Four spring ago, Domonic Brown homered twice, including once against Detroit ace Justin Verlander, to lead the Phillies to victory before being told it was his last day in major league camp. He would report to the much smaller confines of the minor league clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., the next morning.

Next month, Maikel Franco, the Phillies top prospect and one of the minor league's most prolific home run hitters in 2013, will report to major league camp for the first time in his professional career. Franco, who turned 21 in August, will eventually find his way to minor league camp, too, later this spring.

Franco appears to have big-league power. He has a big-league arm from his station at third base, too.

And he has big-league aspirations, too. In September, when he accepted the Paul Owens Award as the Phillies top minor league position player, Franco said he'd come to Clearwater ready to win a major league job.

"I don't feel like I'm coming in to take the job from another guy," Franco said yesterday, clarifying his earlier comments. "I just want to keep my head up and show everyone what I can do, try my best."

His best will still almost certainly earn him a trip to minor league camp. While the power-hitting prospect joined seven other Phillies minor leaguers in Philadelphia this week for their annual Prospect Educational Program, one of his bosses said it's more likely Franco returns to Double A Reading to begin 2014 than it is for him to open the season on the major league roster.

Franco made the jump from Class A Clearwater to Double A Reading last summer.

"I think in a perfect world," Phillies player development director Joe Jordan said, "he probably gets some more [at-bats at Double A]."

Franco, who represented the Phillies at Major League Baseball's Futures Game at Citi Field last summer, hit .339 with a .926 OPS and 15 home runs in 69 games after joining Reading in 2013.

But after Franco's long and eventful year, which ended with learning the ropes at first base in winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he hit .226 in 47 games, the Phillies are wary of throwing too much at him too soon. Jordan compared Franco's possible progression to the very player he will be competing with at third base this spring: Cody Asche.

Two years ago, Asche split the 2012 season between Reading (68 games/289 at-bats) and Class A Clearwater (62 games/270 at-bats). He began the 2013 season at Triple A Lehigh Valley and joined the Phillies in late July.

Franco, meanwhile, played in 65 games (289 at-bats) at Clearwater last year before making the jump to Reading (69 games/292 at-bats).

"They've had the same path both years," Jordan said. "I can see [Franco] going back to Double A to start, but again, we'll make those decisions in March. We don't have to make it today."

Jordan doesn't want to send any messages to Franco. More than anything, he wants the organization's top prospect to maintain his I'm-here-to-win-a-big-league-job mindset.

"I want him to compete," Jordan said. "Show me what he can do."

Franco did that and did it very well in 2013, his fourth season since signing with the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 2010.

Franco hit .320 with a .926 OPS, 31 home runs and 103 RBIs in 134 games between Reading and Clearwater last season.

Only seven players in the affiliated minor leagues hit more home runs. No one had more total bases than Franco, who had 308. In addition to his 31 home runs, Franco had 36 doubles, too.

"You can't say enough," said outfield prospect Kelly Dugan, who also made the jump from Clearwater to Reading last season. "He works really hard and he's a smart hitter."

"He is so much fun to watch," said pitching prospect Jesse Biddle, who spent all of 2013 at Reading. "Every time he gets in the box our whole bench just goes quiet."

It's often said the biggest jump any baseball player will ever make is from Class A to Double A, and Franco handled it flawlessly.

"I think it shows how mature he is as a hitter and how he understands himself," Dugan said. "There's no doubt that he's a great player and I think it will translate really well to the major league level."

Perhaps at some point in 2014, Franco will get that opportunity. When his season officially gets underway in spring training next month, however, Franco will continue to try to diversify his major league portfolio.

Franco began working at first base late last year and spent the majority of time there in the winter league, too. As Jordan said, the Phillies obviously have Ryan Howard entrenched at first base, but Franco's ability to play there at least gives them flexibility and depth.

While Howard and current third-base hopeful Asche hit from the left side, Franco is rigthhanded.

"We're looking for an option if we need it," Jordan said. "He's going to be very proficient at first base. It's just a matter of getting more experience."

Franco will get those reps this spring, first in major league camp and, eventually, after he makes the long, slow walk to minor league camp, too. All Franco can hope is to continue to develop his glove and bat in the next few months so when the big leagues come calling, he's ready to stay for good.

"I want to keep it up, continue [what I've been doing] and play the game hard, play it right and see what happens," Franco said.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21