Is Franco the answer at third? Too soon to know

Playing for the IronPigs against the Norfolk Tides, Mikael Franco makes contact with the ball for a single in the first inning of Wednesday's game.
Playing for the IronPigs against the Norfolk Tides, Mikael Franco makes contact with the ball for a single in the first inning of Wednesday's game. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 25, 2014

ALLENTOWN - The Phillies believe they have a long-term solution at third base, a revolving-door position filled mostly by players from outside their farm system since Scott Rolen ascended to baseball heaven - that's St. Louis, in case you've forgotten - in the middle of the 2002 season.

What the Phillies don't know and won't know for a while is the name attached to that solution.

Maybe it's Cody Asche. It's his job to lose, and some would argue he's doing a pretty good job of losing it. To be fair, he has a history of being a slow starter, and he deserves a lot more than three weeks to prove himself.

Maybe it's Freddy Galvis. Give him a glove, and he can play any position, but he's still considered more of a middle infielder, and the bat he carries to home plate remains shaped like a question mark.

Maybe it's Cesar Hernandez. The Phillies sent him from the big leagues to double-A Reading earlier this month because they wanted him to play third base, but he has also played some shortstop and is viewed more as a super utility guy.

More than likely, the solution remains Maikel Franco, a 21-year-old native of the Dominican Republic who has the rare potential to hit for power and average. So far, in his first exposure to triple-A pitching with the Phillies' Lehigh Valley affiliate, he has done neither.

On Wednesday, Franco rapped two singles in five at-bats, raising his average to .153. Through 19 games, he is 11 for 72 with two doubles, no home runs, and four RBIs.

Bad weather, poor strike-zone discipline, and tough luck were all offered as reasons for Franco's difficult start at the highest level in the minor leagues.

"It's tough, because the weather is 95, 98 [degrees] most of the time [in the Dominican Republic], and you come here and it's 35, 45, that's a little bit hard," Franco said. "But you can't think about it. You have to go play baseball and do what you do."

IronPigs hitting instructor Sal Rende says the weather has been Franco's greatest detriment.

"It just seems like young Latin players, they have a tough time the first part of the year," he said. "The guys who have never really played through it, it's just different. They just have to plug through the first two or three weeks."

The IronPigs coaches agree that the first 17 games were proof that Franco wasn't ready to make the jump from a star slugger at single-A Clearwater and double-A Reading last season to the big leagues this season. That thought crossed a few people's minds when Franco was invited to big-league spring training, but Asche had the upper hand in that competition from the start and opened the season as the team's third baseman.

"He's not ready, obviously," Rende said. "He's not performing at the level where he even needs to be considered right now. He just has to get back to doing what he does, and whatever happens after that happens."

The IronPigs coaches also agree that Franco will figure things out.

"He's trying to do too much, which is very common for a young man with a lot of expectations and a lot on his plate," manager Dave Brundage said. "You almost have to let him figure it out on his own. You have to take some steps backwards before you go forward.

"Not everyone is going to just breeze right through the minor leagues without a little bit of failure" Brundage said. "You hate to say it's a good thing, but it's part of the process and part of the learning curve."

Brundage, the triple-A manager in the Braves organization for six years, said he saw Freddie Freeman go through something similar in 2011. Lehigh Valley coach Mickey Morandini was Franco's manager when the kid struggled mightily through April and May two seasons ago at low single-A Lakewood. Franco hit .217 with five home runs and 22 RBIs through his first 50 games, but batted .318 with nine home runs and 62 RBIs in his final 82 games.

"I think he's a little frustrated, there's no question about that, but he has not taken it out to the field with him," Morandini said. "He's played a really solid third base. He's played first base three or four times and done a very good job over there. I was very impressed with him over there, especially since he has not played a lot of first base."

A slow start has not changed the Phillies organization's outlook on Franco's future.

"You know he has oodles of talent and tools," Brundage said. "Now, he just needs to apply it. He showed glimpses by getting his three hits" against the Yankees' Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate on Saturday. "He settled in and didn't miss the three pitches he had to hit."

Somewhere in the Phillies organization is the homegrown third baseman they've been waiting for since Rolen's departure. Franco, even after a miserable start, believes he is going to be their man.

"For me, that's where I want to be," Franco said. "I want to play third base for the Phillies. But you have to wait and prepare yourself."


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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