March 14, 2016
SARASOTA, Fla. – About 90 minutes into Monday afternoon’s game at Ed Smith Stadium, with the sun beating down on the perfectly manicured green grass and the bay breeze blowing the leaves of the half dozen palm trees beyond the right field fence, the thousands of orange-clad patrons put down their drinks and crab cake sandwiches.
They rose to their feet. They waited.
In the same South Florida ballpark where the greatest basketball player of all time once tried to begin a baseball career, they wanted to Be Like Maik all over again. They wanted to watch Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco finish off the natural hat trick and send another baseball through the sticky spring Florida air and into orbit.
OK, fine. Almost none of those things happened on Monday in Sarasota (where the crab cake sandwiches are actually quite the treat).
But here’s what did happen: Maikel Franco continued his assault on the Grapefruit League, launching home runs in each of his first two at-bats of the game off Baltimore’s Yovani Gallardo in the Phillies 8-7 loss to the Orioles on Monday.
“Last year I was fighting for a position,” said Franco. “I think I tried too much. Now I just feel comfortable, I know I’m going to be in the lineup every single day, and that’s made me more patient, more relaxed."
Tyler Goeddel led off the game with a home run before Franco’s latest long ball show.
As with the majority of the last four years, it’s uncertain what kind of offensive production the Phillies will get out of their outfield, where Goeddel and Herrera could find themselves on Opening Day (more on both of them below). At third base, they have certainty and there one, obvious building block for the next contending Phillies team.
On the same day management gathered three of their most promising prospects and jettisoned them off to minor league camp, the guy that will be awaiting J.P. Crawford’s arrival to the left side of the infield kept his spring swing intact. When the second of his two home runs found a landing spot over the fence, Franco had six home runs – two more than any other major league player in either Florida or Arizona this spring.
“That’s fun to see,” said manager Pete Mackanin, who did also admit he wants his third baseman to clean up some "sloppy" defense he's seen this spring.
But back to that bat.
The six home runs Franco has hit (in 11 games and 30 at-bats this spring) is six more than he hit in his first two major league camps. Franco didn’t hit a single home run in 28 games and 68 at-bats in 2014 and 2015 combined.
Franco did go on to hit 14 home runs in 80 games during the regular season. But what’s brought about the change in spring training?
“Last year I was fighting for a position,” said Franco, who came into camp competing with Cody Asche for the third base job but was eventually optioned to minor league camp. “I think I tried too much. Now I just feel comfortable, I know I’m going to be in the lineup every single day, and that’s made me more patient, more relaxed. That’s what’s happened. I know I’ll be in the lineup so I just try to be ready to go, I try to have fun and play the game.”
Franco’s first home run on Monday was a no-doubt-about-it blast that was last seen trying to hitch a ride on I-75. Or possibly clanging off Freddy Galvis’ windshield back in Clearwater.
“Maybe,” Franco said with a laugh. “I didn’t see the ball. I just put my head down and ran. I don’t know how far the ball want.”
As the Phillies began their third week of games this spring, Franco is hitting .367 (11-for-30) with a half dozen home runs, two walks and four strikeouts. It’s spring training, surely, and the stats don’t count.
But it does make your mind begin to wonder, especially after the promise the 23-year-old, right-handed hitting Dominican showed last summer, if he can keep up with the likes of Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and company in the National League home run race this season.
“Yeah,” Mackanin said when asked if that was a possibility. “Certainly I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
And that’s fair, too. There’s no reason to get your head too far in the clouds – where they may be pelted by a Franco home run ball – in March.
But before anyone forgets, Franco was right there with Bryant (the eventual NL Rookie of the Year) and the rest of the exceptionally special Class of 2015 rookies last summer. He may have been the most underrated rookie of the class.
At the time Jeremy Hellickson’s fastball caught him on the left hand on August 11 in Arizona, an injury that forced him out of the lineup for close to two months, Franco led all rookies – in both leagues – with a .828 OPS and .490 slugging percentage (min. 300 plate appearances). And, with 13 home runs at the time of the injury, only Joc Pederson (21), Bryant (15), and Randal Grichuk (14) had more home runs among NL rookies.
Did Franco ever wonder if he could have taken home the trophy had he played in August and September, when he was rehabbing from a broken left hand?
“Yeah, I had two months,” Franco said. “I knew I lost (that chance). It’d been close. I had an opportunity. I was close to Pederson and Bryant. It was a little but frustrating. But now I’m forgetting about that and trying to continue to do what I’m doing right now.”
And what he’s doing now could lead to the kind of year that’d put people back in the seats regularly at Citizens Bank Park. Thirty home runs? Why stop there. Forty?
“I don’t really think about that,” Franco said. “I’m just trying to be healthy. And I know if I’m healthy, something good is going to happen. Every time I just come in and do everything I can do. Go to the weight room. Get my (batting) practice in, my routine. If I’m healthy, something good is going to happen.”