Franco, 21, is turning heads at Phillies camp

"I know what my job is," said Cliff Lee, who needed just 12 pitches to put away the Jays in the first inning.
"I know what my job is," said Cliff Lee, who needed just 12 pitches to put away the Jays in the first inning. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: March 06, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The youngest player in Phillies camp gravitated to the 68-year-old man with an unforgiving fungo bat. Their morning ground-ball sessions soon turned from voluntary to assumed, and Maikel Franco understood it was wise to stay near Larry Bowa.

Franco, the 21-year-old top prospect, admitted to nerves in his first taste of a big-league spring. "I didn't feel comfortable," he said. Bowa's barrage of grounders eased the pressure.

"I have a good relationship with him," Franco said. "I think he helps me a lot."

Bowa, the baseball lifer, is smitten.

"He's going to be special if he doesn't get hurt and continues to progress," Bowa said. "He'll be one of those guys who makes you go, 'Wow.' "

This spring is about first impressions for Franco, the team's most-hyped prospect since Domonic Brown. Eventually, the third baseman will make the short walk from Bright House Field to the Carpenter Complex and join the Phillies' minor-league players. He passed the initial eye test.

"If he continues to grow and learn, he will be a force to be reckoned with," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "He has a really good idea of what he's doing and what it takes."

"He's got power, man," catcher Carlos Ruiz said. "Just from watching him in batting practice."

"Real good glove," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He has a knack for the harder the play it is, the softer he is. I don't know where he got that. I haven't asked him. That's instinct. That is second-nature stuff."

Franco started again Tuesday for the second consecutive game as Cody Asche nursed a bruised right hand. Asche took batting practice and could return to the lineup Wednesday. Third base is Asche's job, barring unforeseen developments.

The future is less clear, and that is why the Phillies wanted Franco to moonlight at first base. They like Asche at third. Howard, signed for three more years and $85 million, is entrenched at first. That blocks Franco's immediate path, which Bowa said is a "good problem."

Most scouts believe that Franco - not blessed with speed - can stick at third base. Bowa is convinced. He compared the 6-foot-1 Franco - generously listed at 180 pounds - with Adrian Beltre, a big-bodied third baseman with four Gold Gloves to his name. Franco hit 31 home runs in the minors last season.

"Tremendous hands. Great first step," said Bowa, the Phillies bench coach. "You don't have to be fast to play there. His first step is explosive. He has tremendous hands. The harder you hit it, the softer his hands get."

These spring games provide anecdotal evidence of Franco's talent. He almost decapitated Tampa Bay's Matt Moore - one of the game's best young lefthanders - with a blistering line drive on Monday. A few innings later, Franco backhanded a grounder behind third base and fired a strike to first.

Franco takes big hacks. That can create holes in his swing, a criticism leveled by some scouts.

"Right now, his swing is a little long because he's in big-league camp and trying to hit it over the tiki bar on every swing," Bowa said. "He's been written up as a big prospect. Sometimes that's a lot of responsibility. Once he settles in, he'll be fine."

There is one weakness in Franco's game that will be difficult to improve. "He can't run," Bowa said. "If that's the only thing he can't do, we have a good player."

Sandberg said there is no rush to send Franco to minor-league camp. Franco logged 69 games at double-A Reading. For that reason, he could return there to start 2014.

Bowa tested Franco at first base one Friday morning at the start of camp. He stood at second base and sprayed grounders at Franco to simulate throws in the dirt.

"He wants to make you better and better every day," Franco said.

Franco, drenched in sweat, collected the baseballs. A gruff voice yelled, "Franco!" He turned to see Bowa, who approved with a thumbs-up.


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