For Phillies, who's on third?

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cody Asche watches Maikel Franco throw the ball during warmups earlier this spring.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cody Asche watches Maikel Franco throw the ball during warmups earlier this spring.
Posted: March 19, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Within the last month, more than a dozen former Phillies have made an appearance in Clearwater, including three of the most important third basemen in franchise history.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, considered by many as the greatest third baseman in baseball history, arrived this weekend as a new member of the broadcast team. Scott Rolen, once considered the franchise player who could finally fill Schmidt's shoes at third, made an appearance before batting practice in February. Pedro Feliz, who delivered the game-winning hit in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, arrived in camp one day as part of his new job working for a bat vendor.

All three of them were greeted with enthusiasm by former teammates, coaches and friends. But like everyone else who has walked around the Carpenter Complex for the last month, the trio of former Phils third basemen couldn't help but wonder just who will be playing in their old position in 2014.

"Who's at third this year?" Rolen asked innocently before the Phillies' first exhibition game.

Cody Asche started at third base that day. Two days later, Maikel Franco was at third. In the day in between, both Asche and Franco were in the lineup, with Franco playing first base.

Yesterday, Ryne Sandberg announced that Cliff Lee would be on the mound for Opening Day. But who's on third?

"I'm still looking at both guys," Sandberg said.

A few minutes earlier, after the game between the Phillies and Orioles was canceled because of rain, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. all but said that the third base job remains a wide-open competition.

"There are no locks," Amaro said. "No decisions have been made."

It's widely assumed that the incumbent, the 23-year-old Asche, is the heavy favorite to start at third when the Phillies open the regular season 1 week from Monday in Arlington, Texas. Asche is 2 years and 2 months older than Franco and, in professional baseball experience, 1 year ahead of Franco.

Asche made his major league debut a day before the trade deadline last summer after hitting .295 with a .837 OPS and 15 home runs in 104 games at Triple A Lehigh Valley. He played the final 50 games of 2013 in the big leagues.

"It was beneficial," Asche said of his major league experience entering camp. "Seeing the pitchers, but mostly being familiar with the group and comfortable in the setting. I think being comfortable in the setting is one of the bigger tasks at hand. When you're comfortable in the setting, it makes everything a little easier for you."

Asche hit .235 in 2 months in the big leagues, but showed his potential during a 6-week stretch from Aug. 6 to Sept. 16, when he batted .299 with an .869 OPS and 13 extra-base hits (five home runs) in 33 games.

Amaro said there were no locks, but he did admit Asche has the edge because of that big-league experience.

Franco, though, is difficult to ignore. Although he doesn't have an extra-base hit this spring, Franco has produced some of the hardest-hit balls from Phillies batters in the last month, sending blistering line drives into the outfield for singles or waiting gloves of quick-reflexed fielders.

He also hasn't acted intimidated for a player who only turned 21 seven months ago.

"[I like] his demeanor," Amaro said. "Very calm. He handles himself in a very mature way. He isn't rattled by anything."

Last month, Baseball America rated Franco as the 17th best prospect in the game after a breakout minor league season when he hit .320 with a .926 OPS and 31 home runs in 134 games between Double A Reading and Class A Clearwater. While he might have a higher ceiling than Asche, Franco isn't a finished product yet; he's working to improve his footwork in the infield.

Franco has used his first big-league camp to pick up pointers from accomplished infielders, including Jimmy Rollins.

"He's a very good guy who just wants to help you," Franco said. "He told me you've got good talent, but you want to keep working hard on everything. Don't forget that you can still get better and better every day. So when you come in, go to the weight room and work out. Talk to somebody. Take ground balls. Tell someone you want to hit early."

Asche, meanwhile, was lauded for his range at third base after stepping in for veteran Michael Young last season. Asche has started 10 games at third this spring, while Franco has started six; overall, Asche has 11 starts, Franco has eight.

On the offensive side, neither player has had an eye-opening spring in the first 3 weeks of games, at least statistically.

Asche, who was scheduled to start yesterday's game, is hitting .138 (4-for-29) with one home run, four walks and 11 strikeouts in 13 games. Franco is batting .206 (7-for-34) with two walks and five strikeouts in 15 games.

"I think it's progressing upwards," Asche said. "I think that's where you want to be at. You want to be in position where you're improving instead of declining as we get closer and closer to breaking camp. So I'm happy with where I'm at. Maybe not happy with where I started, but you can't change that now."

The lefthanded-hitting Asche was hitless in his first 13 at-bats, but he's reached base in six of his last seven starts. The righthanded-hitting Franco, meanwhile, has a hit or a walk in seven of his eight starts.

"It's still March 17," Amaro said. "We've got time. They're still working. Asche started off slow, obviously. I think both of them have shown signs of doing good things. But, again, they are young players. This is what happens with young players.

"You don't know how they're going to react to certain situations. They're both very talented. We just have to give both of them some more reps, some more time and see where it goes."

Sandberg said both players would continue to get equal playing time as the spring schedule continues. But when the Phillies return to the field tomorrow, following today's scheduled day off, they have just 9 days remaining in Florida.

Who's on third? No one is certain, but the favorite in the clubhouse said both will benefit from the competition this spring.

"It's good for the team - it's good for everybody," Asche said. "He's a good player. I'm sure he's learning from me and I'm learning from him. We're rooting for each other every day. You can only control what you can.

"Obviously each of us bring different things to the table. But both of us play the same position and we're hoping to make it a hard decision on them."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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