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September 06, 2017

Could J.P. Crawford stay at third base for the Phillies in 2018?

NEW YORK – While most people had already headed out to the 7 Train to beat the traffic out of Citi Park (and the folks leaving the U.S. Open up the road, too), the rookie who only began playing third base two weeks earlier was putting on a show.

Of the four final batters that stepped to the plate for the New York Mets, three of them hit ground balls in the general direction of J.P. Crawford.

In the eighth, with the Phillies up 9-1 but the Mets rallying with the bases loaded and only one out, Juan Lagares hit a one-hopper toward the hole in between third and short, where Crawford quickly handled it and fired to Cesar Hernandez to start a 5-4-3 double play.

In the ninth, the last two outs of the game were Crawford’s too. The first, another in the hole between third and short, another easily converted by the natural shortstop. The second, the game’s last out, came out Crawford quickly and with a tough short hop, but again he handled it with ease.

When reporters approached Crawford's locker stall after the game, someone joked that the Phillies might not ever move him off third base if he kept playing like that at his new, likely temporary position.

“That’s fine,” Crawford said. “Anywhere I can help the team win, I’m all in.”

He also said it felt comfortable. Which wasn’t surprising, since that’s really how he made it look.

And maybe none of this should be very surprising. Major league coaches and front office personnel have put their best infield glove at shortstop for as long as the game has been around, so the logic goes that if a player is good enough to play shortstop, he can handle any other position in the infield with ease with some reps.

The man currently playing Crawford’s natural position is an example right in the Phillies clubhouse. Since signing a pro contract in 2006 at 16, Freddy Galvis had played just five games at a position other than shortstop when he was asked to become a quick learner at the position late in spring training of 2012, when Chase Utley’s knee issues persisted and the sure-handed shortstop prospect was deemed the best replacement for the team’s long-time second baseman.

Galvis’s defensive work at second was lauded during the first few months of 2012 before Utley returned.

“It’s always good to have guys who are versatile,” manager Pete Mackanin said on Tuesday night. “That's why we move players around. … Today was pretty impressive. You never know what happens in the way of a trade or injuries.”

Crawford playing third base isn't the same as Rhys Hoskins (a natural first baseman) playing left field. Crawford's defensive work probably makes him an upgrade from Maikel Franco at third.

And it leads to an interesting possible scenario for 2018: is it possible (or even likely) that Crawford could be the Phillies everyday third baseman next season?

First, let’s slow down that thought for just a second. Crawford has played one big league game. Galvis is a free agent after the 2018 season.

If the Phillies’ brass believes Crawford is their shortstop of the future, it might make a lot of sense to begin the transition this winter by way of a trade that sends Galvis out to, say, a contending team looking for one of the game’s top defensive shortstops that has enough bats elsewhere to handle Galvis’s offensive deficiencies.

But going the other route – holding onto Galvis for 2018 while opening up a spot for Crawford, too – isn’t exactly radical.

In Washington last season, shortstop prospect Trea Turner make 44 starts in center field, 25 at second base, and zero at shortstop with Danny Espinosa entrenched in Washington's infield. In 2017, after Espinosa was traded over the winter, Turner has started all 73 of his games at shortstop.

In Chicago this season, former first round pick Ian Happ, who had played 107 of his 137 minor league games at second base, has made 24 starts at second and 34 starts in center field for the Cubs as a rookie.

Also in Chicago this season: Javier Baez has spent the last month as the Cubs everyday shortstop. Last season the former shortstop prospect worked as a super utility man for the World Series champs, starting 38 games at second, 36 at third, 21 at short, and two at first base.

If the Phillies still value Galvis’s defense at short in front of a young pitching staff – along with the intangibles he brings in the clubhouse – it’s feasible to go into 2018 the way the Phillies have gone into each of the last two nights, with Galvis at shortstop and Crawford at third base. And then after 2018, when Galvis can become a free agent (joining a class that includes fellow infielders Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, D.J. LeMehieu, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy,  and Jean Segura, among others), the Phillies can re-evaluate.

Of course, this scenario would also involve the Phillies moving on from Maikel Franco, who manager Pete Mackanin said was “still our third baseman” on Tuesday night, after having a conversation with the 25-year-old about his playing time getting cut into this month.

“He accepted it,” Mackanin said. “I told him what we were going to do. He was fine.”

If the three rebuilding years the Phillies have endured are about anything, they’ve been about trying to figure out who does and does not belong for the long term. Some may argue it’s premature to give up on Franco (he still has four more years of club control and he is still somewhat young, just 203 days older than Rhys Hoskins) but he has had 2 1/2 seasons to live up to his potential and, particularly in the last two years, he hasn’t done so.

And, eventually, you have to make the call on whether he’s your guy.

“You have to hit better,” Mackanin said. “And I think he's going to hit. But, once again, there's competition everywhere. Even in your own organization. People want to play in the big leagues. They're going to try to take your job. Don't let anybody take your job.”

If the Phillies move on from Franco this winter (which could be somewhat risky, given his still untapped potential and aforementioned club control … and would mean selling low) you could understand it given his production in the last two seasons.

Since the beginning of 2016, only six major league players (min. 1,000 plate appearances) have an OPS lower than .705. Franco (.701) is one of them, along with Galvis (.686), Kevin Pillar (.691), Jason Heyward (.660), Billy Hamilton (.647), and Alcides Escobar (.616). It should be noted that the latter five players are all considered elite defensive players.

  • Among the 11 major league third baseman with 1,000 plate appearances in the last two seasons, Franco’s .408 slugging percentage ranks 11th. His .293 OBP also ranks 11th – and is 23 points lower than the next closest player (Todd Frazier, .316). And only one player (Nick Castellanos, 38) has fewer home runs than Franco’s 43.

 Franco’s .665 OPS this season ranks 21st of 21 qualifying big league third baseman – 82 points lower than the next closest player (Frazier, .747). Franco is also the only one of the 21 third baseman with a negative WAR (-0.8).

  • Franco’s .164 isolated power (a "measure of a hitter’s raw power, tells you how often a player hits for extra bases") is 19th out of 21 big league third baseman. His .172 isolated power last year was 15th out of 20 qualifying third baseman.

  Franco’s -1.6 Defensive Runs Above Average is 16th out of 18 big league third baseman according to FanGraphs. Franco’s -5 defensive runs saved also ranks 16th (only Jake Lamb, -12, and Castellanos, -14, have been worse).

Still, given his age, salary/club control, and potential (he was a sleeper Rookie of the Year candidate in 2015 at age 22), Franco almost certainly has more trade value than Galvis this winter. And if the Phillies go that route, and shop Franco this offseason, Crawford, in 2018, could potentially stay at the position he made his first two major league starts at this week in New York.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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