May 24, 2017
When your team has one win in the last 10 days, the fewest wins in all of baseball, a new spot at the bottom of the standings in baseball’s worst division, and you’ve watched it score three total runs in the last three games, you have to try just about everything as a manager.
So Pete Mackanin is seeing what rookie Andrew Knapp can do. The 25-year-old former catching prospect started his second straight game on Wednesday night (and his third in the Phillies’ last four games, and seventh in then last 15).
And he’s decided to take the guy penciled in as his cleanup hitter on Opening Day and set him aside for an undetermined amount of time. Maikel Franco was on the bench for the second straight day and it’s unclear whether he’ll return to the lineup for Thursday’s matinee against the Colorado Rockies, too.
“It’s a day to day thing,” Mackanin said of benching Franco, who is hitting .221 with a .657 OPS in 41 games. “No specific plan.”
Mackanin said he hasn’t talked to his struggling slugger. Conversely, he had given starting catcher Cameron Rupp a heads-up that Knapp was due to get some increased playing time.
So why not chat with Franco?
“I’d like to see if he comes to me rather than me going to him,” Mackanin said, referring to a story he told 48 hours earlier regarding his own playing career, when an old manager of his deployed a similar tactic and had to wait a week until he asked the young Mackanin what took so long to ask about his decreased playing time.
For his part, Franco said he didn’t see a need to meet with the manager.
“No,” Franco said after pregame batting practice late Wednesday afternoon. “I just come in, and if I’m not playing, it’s fine. If I play, I just try to get myself ready to try to do myself in the game. And try to help my team. … I mean, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not that guy. I’m just trying to stay mentally ready, and if I see the lineup and I’m playing, I’ll go to play. If I’m not, I just try to get relaxed, enjoy the day, and do everything I can do.”
It’s best not to read too much into Franco’s words. He has a laid-back personality, but he’s a worker, whether it’s in the cage, out on the field in batting practice, or talking shop with hitting coach Matt Stairs.
Prior to Wednesday’s pregame batting practice, Mackanin recalled another struggling young third baseman he once managed with the Reds.
“I remember when (Edwin) Encarnacion was in Cincinnati,” Mackanin said. “He had that kind of mosey type of demeanor. He was laid back and didn’t seem to get upset and didn’t seem to get into the game. But I got to know him and he’s like that. That’s their way of dealing with failure, not that he was failing that much but he wasn’t the guy they expected him to be. Even some coaches and people said ‘Encarnacion doesn’t care’ or ‘How comes he’s so laid back?’ Some guys do that. That’s the way they’d handle it.
“I know for a fact Franco told Matt that he feels embarrassed that he’s not hitting well. He gives you that impression that he doesn’t care but inside he does. You have to get to know their personalities because everybody is different, the way they handle failure and success.”
Franco’s overall numbers aren’t pretty. He entered Wednesday slashing .221/.281/.377 with six home runs (numbers that really aren’t that different from where he stood after 41 games in 2016: .241/.285/.424, seven home runs).
But, still, the Phillies have been waiting for the 24-year-old to break out into a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat since the beginning of last season, and it hasn’t happened. Franco’s best stretch in the big leagues remains the first 80 games he played as a rookie in 2015, when he slashed .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs and was a dark horse in the National League Rookie of the Year race before breaking a bone in his hand on a hit by pitch in early August.
Now, apparently, things have gotten so bad that he’s “embarrassed” by his lack of production. Franco was asked on Wednesday if that’s how he really felt.
“Not at all, not at all,” Franco said. “I have to understand that it’s part of the game. I know I can do better, but I’m just coming in every day and continuing to work on what I have to work on, like I said, coming in and just trying to get better every day. I know if I can do everything I can do better, I know something good is going to happen.”
But for every positive step Franco takes, it feels like it’s followed by two steps backward.
Franco hit safely in eight straight games entering Monday, a time that coincided with him working with Stairs to lower his hands in his set-up. And then, on Monday, he hit a screaming line drive that just so happened to find the waiting glove of fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado.
It wasn’t a productive out, but it was an encouraging swing. And it reminded you that he had a .220 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which ranked 173 out of 183 hitters entering Wednesday. So, a bit unlucky for seven weeks.
But then … then Franco swung wildly at third strikes in each of his next two at-bats on Monday. His strikeouts have jumped back up recently; after striking out just 10 times over his first 22 games/85 at-bats, Franco has struck out 14 times in his last 19 games/69 at-bats.
Mackanin used the word “befuddled” to best describe how he felt with Franco’s inability to get going nearly two months into the 2017 season.
“As much as he works in the cage and on the field in (batting practice), he does it right,” Mackanin said. “And then he gets in the game and that head is still flying, bat is coming out of the zone.”
Even if he can’t keep his head right in the batter’s box, Franco is doing his best to keep it in the right place as he battles the psychological toll of his current benching, which has no clear end.
“Sometimes it’s crazy and sometimes you get frustrated, but you have to stay in the game,” Franco said. “The other day that happens, two strikeouts. But I’m just coming in every day 100 percent ready, mentally and physically, and try to do my best.”
Howie Kendrick is beginning a minor league rehab assignment at Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night.
Kendrick has been sidelined since April 15 with a Grade 1 oblique strain. Mackanin said the 33-year-old Kendrick would play a minimum of four games with the IronPigs, bouncing between left field, third base and first base.
Kendrick was hitting .333 with four doubles and a triple in 10 games before being placed on the disabled list last month.
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