Phillies making no quick decision on Franco

Posted: August 27, 2014

FOURTEEN YEARS ago, the Phillies entered the final month of the season 20 games under .500. As most non-contending teams are prone to do, the 2000 Phillies called up a top prospect that month in order to give him a look in the major leagues.

Twenty-one-year-old Jimmy Rollins hit .321 in 14 games that September.

Four years later, the Phillies were 12 1/2 games out of the National League East when they summoned power-hitting first baseman Ryan Howard to the big leagues for the first time. Howard hit .282 with two home runs in 19 games.

Yesterday, the Phillies entered the final 5 weeks of the season in last place, 17 1/2 games behind the first-place team sitting in the opposite dugout last night, the Washington Nationals.

But general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the organization is still undecided on whether to promote top hitting prospect Maikel Franco next week. All major league rosters expand from 25 players to as many as 40 on Sept. 1.

"We're still discussing it internally," Amaro said yesterday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

Franco, who turns 22 today, has been scalding in the last week. Entering yesterday, Franco was 14-for-28 with six extra-base hits in his last seven games at Triple A Lehigh Valley.

But he has been fairly potent at the plate for 2 months: Since the start of July, Franco was hitting 330 with a .926 OPS and 27 extra-base hits (nine home runs) entering the week. He stayed hot yesterday, hitting his 15th homer of the season (and fifth in his last 13 games).

"He's hot," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "The 31 doubles [this season] kind of pops out. In the minor leagues, that's a power number. At the major leagues, that's a power number. He has a chance with this hot streak to really end on a good note from where the hole that he was in for probably 2 1/2 months of the season. Really shows how far that he's come in a month and a half."

Franco, playing in his first full season at Triple A, entered the month of July hitting .209 with five home runs and a .585 OPS in his first 78 games in 2014. But Franco hit for the cycle on Saturday and has tapped back into the talent he showed off in 2013 (.320, .926 OPS, 31 home runs in 134 games).

But, in listening to Amaro, it sounds as if Franco might not be making the trip down the Northeast Extension next week because there is no obvious position for him to play in Philadelphia.

Franco's primary position is third base, where Cody Asche continues to get evaluated at the big-league level in his first full season with the Phillies. Franco also has played 23 games at first base, where Howard has started 27 of the 28 games since being benched for three games a month ago.

"The biggest thing for him is playing time, and making sure this is the right thing, the right atmosphere and the right time - not atmosphere as much as playing time, to bring him up here just to sit around," Amaro said. "We'd like to assess some other things. There are a lot of different factors. We still have time to make a decision on it."

It may have been a different time and a different place, but 10 years ago, when Howard was summoned to the big leagues in September, he started just five of the 19 games he appeared in. It would seem plausible for Franco to get at least a half-dozen starts between first and third base.

Although a lot can change in 6 days, Amaro's comments fall in line with the way his manager has filled out the Phillies starting lineup for the last month. Despite going nowhere in the standings, the Phils don't appear to have a clear-cut plan.

Sandberg has continued to start some young players, Asche and Domonic Brown, while Darin Ruf has started six games this month. While playing for an injured Howard last August, Ruf hit nine home runs - only two major leaguers, Miguel Cabrera and Alfonso Soriano, hit more.

But Ruf, 28, who missed the majority of the first half of the current season with injuries, remains an unknown commodity. Can he be an everyday player?

"We haven't made a final decision on that yet," Amaro said.

Ruf, like Franco, appears to be blocked at the moment. Although Ruf can play leftfield, the Phillies prefer him at first base.

Whether it's Ruf or Franco, it would seem like a lost opportunity if the Phillies finish out the final weeks of the season without knowing a little bit about one of their younger, power-hitting, righthanded bats. So is there at least a potential plan in place to change the way playing time is divvied out in September?

"We'll see," Amaro said. "A lot of it depends on who gets called up, who we decide are the priority guys as far as playing time is concerned. We have time to decide that."

And how do you decide who the priority guys are?

"We'll figure it out," Amaro said.

Franco, much like Ruf, would only appear to be in line for regular playing time if Howard's playing time diminished next month.

Since sitting out three straight games a month ago, Howard entered yesterday hitting .219 with a .314 OBP, four homers and a .697 OPS in 27 games. For the season on the whole, Howard's .685 OPS and his .377 slugging percentage both ranked 20th out of 22 qualifying major league first baseman.

"He has had some level of production," Amaro said of adjustments Howard has made in the month since his three-game break. "Obviously the batting average isn't there and he's got a lot of strikeouts. But he's driving in runs and he's hitting some home runs.

"I think he can be better and I think he's working on being better. All you can ask a player, particularly a veteran player who has had success, is to continue to work and that's what he is doing and I commend him for that."

Howard is owed a minimum of $60 million after this season. It would be somewhat surprising to see Amaro and Sandberg alter Howard's role in September.

Amaro and Co. could, however, open up a spot for Franco (or Ruf) by attempting to trade Howard this winter, which would also entail eating a large majority of the aforementioned $60 million the former MVP is owed.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21


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