Future could be soon for Phils' Franco

ASSOCIATED PRESS The World team's Steven Moya and a fan at Target Field vie for the same foul ball.
ASSOCIATED PRESS The World team's Steven Moya and a fan at Target Field vie for the same foul ball.
Posted: July 15, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS - During the 3 days of All-Star festivities at Target Field, the Phillies will have twice as many players participate in the first event than they will in the main event.

Perhaps that's not a terrible development for depressed Phillies fans.

Infield prospects Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford played in yesterday's All-Star Futures Game, an event held each year displaying the top prospects in the game. Chase Utley will make the sixth All-Star appearance of his career tomorrow; the 35-year-old Utley will be the third-oldest player in either starting lineup.

The aging Phillies showed a pulse in the final week of the season's first half, but still limped into the All-Star break as a last-place team with a double-digit deficit in the National League East standings.

A Future who took the field yesterday in Minneapolis could be coming to a ballpark near you (South Philly, of course) sooner than you think.

Franco, who turns 22 next month, could lead that charge. Although the slugging corner infielder has struggled for the majority of the season at Triple A, there comes a point when you have to wonder if it's worth testing a player at the big-league level instead, since the big-league club is headed nowhere fast.

A change of scenery could bring out the best in Franco, who hit .320 with 31 home runs and a .926 OPS in 134 games between Double A Reading and Class A Clearwater last season to win the organization's Paul Owens Award for the top position player in the minor league system.

"I don't think about that," Franco said yesterday. "I just try to play baseball, play the right way. When [they] make the decision to bring me up, I'll be ready. I'll be ready for everything. I'm just trying to stay strong, stay positive in Triple A. Keep working hard, do my job, help my team win however I can and we'll see what happens."

Franco is hitting .230 with six home runs, 42 RBI and a .649 OPS in 87 games with the IronPigs. But his bat has picked up recently: he's 16-for-41 (.390) this month.

Franco has nine extra-base hits in nine games in July; he had just 22 in his first 78 games.

"The first 2 months, I can't do anything about it," Franco said. "You just have to stay strong and keep your head up. Like I said, if you don't do well for 2 months, what are you going to do? You just have to stay positive for the last 4 months. Sometimes it's hard."

As Jimmy Dugan once said, baseball "is supposed to be hard. That's what makes it great."

Regardless of how difficult the first 2 months were for the Dominican-born Franco, when he said cold weather was also a nuisance, his bat has warmed up and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has taken notice.

Just a week ago Amaro stood outside the dugout at Miller Park in Milwaukee and said changes were on the way for his "poor" major league lineup.

"I'm looking for people who can swing the bat," Amaro said. "Because we're not doing it here. If he gets to the point where he starts swinging the bat consistently, he's a guy who could be in play, too."

But the Phillies are already playing a young, developing player at Franco's natural position at third base, right? How can Cody Asche and Franco play at the same time?

"[Franco] could play first base, too," Amaro responded.

The Phillies obviously have a regular first baseman, too. One who is still owed a minimum of roughly $72 million for the next 2 1/2 seasons.

But Amaro is obviously not thrilled with the production he's getting from Ryan Howard, and a platoon is the least the team can do to infuse more regular youth into the lineup. After an 0-for-3 day yesterday, Howard is hitting .220 at the break.

At the conclusion of the 10-3 loss to Washington, Howard's .681 OPS ranked 127th out of the 160 major league players who qualify. His .381 slugging percentage ranks 112th.

Among players with at least 350 plate appearances, only 21 have fewer extra-base hits than Howard, who has 26 in 93 games.

For frame-of-reference purposes: Howard had 46 extra-base hits through his first 93 games in 2009 and current NL leader Paul Goldschmidt has more than twice as many as Howard this year (53 in 95 games). But Howard's struggles have been well-documented.

Soon, the Future will have to take over one way or another.

With Howard, the Phillies cannot field a lineup with Franco, Asche, Darin Ruf and Domonic Brown all at the same time. But with Franco, Ryne Sandberg will at least have more options and the ability to work in more younger players more regularly.

Before taking batting practice yesterday afternoon, Franco wanted to forget about the first 2 months of his season, and the struggles he endured against the more experienced pitchers found at Triple A when compared to Double A. He wanted to look forward.

But not beyond the game he was about to play in that day.

"Two times in 2 years," Franco said of his second straight appearance in the Futures Game. "I'm just going to enjoy the game. Enjoy it all. It's everything for me. It's hard to get here, so it's a pretty good [accomplishment]. They give you this opportunity, so you have to take advantage of it for yourself."

Franco took over at third base for the World team midway through the game. He flew out in his only two at-bats.

More Phillies: Crawford making major progress.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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