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March 09, 2017

Maikel Franco showing off maturation as a hitter this spring

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It was a small moment in a midweek exhibition game, one that probably didn’t register with the nearly 6,100 people inside Champion Stadium on Disney’s campus in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Wednesday.

Manager Pete Mackanin noticed, though. Hitting coach Matt Stairs likely nodded in approval, too.

In the top of the first inning, with Cesar Hernandez on third base, Freddy Galvis on second, and one out, Maikel Franco stepped in to face new Atlanta Braves veteran and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon.

To say that Franco hasn’t had a lot of success against Colon is a bit of an understatement. In parts of three big league seasons, Franco is 1-for-16 with no walks and three strikeouts vs. Colon.

Franco made an out and returned to the bench after his at-bat on Wednesday afternoon, but it was hardly an unproductive at-bat. He hit a ground ball to second base, bringing in Hernandez with the game’s first run.

“Don’t try to hit a home run (there),” Mackanin said. “He hit a ground ball to the right side. And if it was a little farther to the right side he would have gotten two RBI, driven in two runs. It takes time, but he’s starting to use the middle of the field more. And if he continues to do that, he’s going to be real successful.”

Without being prompted, it was the first of his three at-bats that Franco spoke about after he came out of the game, too.

“A guy on second and third and I hit the ball the other way, I got my RBI,” Franco said. “So it’s that’s kind of approach that I have to improve (on). Just stay down, take what they give you. I’m just going out there every single day, try to be relaxed, and try to have success.”

It’s easy to forget that Franco only turned 24 in August. The 2016 season was his first full year in the major leagues. He’s still a developing hitter.

With that said, lofty expectations were placed on the power-hitting third baseman this time a year ago, especially with the way he was tearing up the Grapefruit League. Franco hit .294 with nine home runs in 22 exhibition games last spring, following a 2015 season when he flirted with the National League Rookie of the Year race by batting .280 with 14 home runs and an .840 OPS in 80 games before suffering a wrist injury in August.

Because of his productive rookie season and the expectations he brought into 2016, Franco’s numbers were somewhat underwhelming last season: .255 with 25 home runs, 88 RBI, and a.733 OPS.

“I was disappointed,” said Hall of Famer and Phillies spring instructor Mike Schmidt, the best third baseman in Phillies (and arguably, baseball) history. “I had a lot higher expectations for Maikel – I may have had the highest expectations, as a matter of fact.”

Last spring, Schmidt said he believed Franco had MVP potential.

“Maybe Spring Training is a tough time to assess a hitter because there’s a lot more fastball thrown early in the count, ballparks are smaller and there’s a lot of hitting early in the count,” Schmidt said. “Things like that happen. There’s less pressure – that kind of thing. … But already this spring, he started off like he did last spring. So my expectations for him are high.”

Franco entered Wednesday’s game in Clearwater hitting .263 with three home runs, four strikeouts, and one walk in seven games. But, as Schmidt said, Spring Training stats are … Spring Training stats.

“The area that he has to develop better is game planning at home plate and understanding there is a guy in the batters' box behind him and that a walk with men on second and third is a possibility," Schmidt said. "His desire to drive those two runs or getting three with a home run swing leads to those at-bats where you give an at-bat away because you don’t have the right game plan. It’s not mechanics and it's not physical – it’s more (mental) and that’s how you perceive the game and there are going to be at-bats where there are opportunities for RBI where it is best for the team to let the guy behind you go for those RBI, and understanding that the year is long enough that even if you don’t get those RBI right now, you could still drive in 120. But it is better for the team if you let those go for now and not waste an at-bat starting your swing before the pitcher lets go of the ball because you are overanxious. The overanxious part of hitting is one of those areas where he has to improve. For me, it was a major problem early so that’s why I can relate to him so much.”

At least in the short window of two weeks of exhibition games this spring, including his ability to do exactly what Schmidt was talking about on Wednesday against Colon, Franco appears to be learning. New hitting coach Matt Stairs has preached for Franco to think about staying up the middle with each swing, rather than try to hit everything 450 feet to his pull side.

“That’s what he’s telling me,” Franco said. “Stay with your approach, be consistent, don’t try to force the situation. He’s a good guy, he brings a lot of energy and gives me a lot of confidence.”

Franco’s production came in waves last summer. He hit .299 with 5 home runs in his first 17 games of the season, and then .213 in his next 19 games. He had a .270/.311/.480 slash line in July, .224/.272/.336 in August, and .306/.352/.449 in September/October.

Hot streaks and prolonged slumps are a part of the game. Franco, destined to hit fourth again in Mackanin's lineup, is working on not getting overanxious or aggressive in both good times and bad. Having some veterans around him in the lineup, with the additions of Michael Saunders (who will likely hit behind him) and Howie Kendrick (likely hitting second, in front of All-Star Odubel Herrera) should help ease the burden of trying to carry the lineup, too.

“It’s 162 games,” Franco said. “It’s a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes you feel good, sometimes not. You have to understand that’s going to happen. So don’t try to force it, it’ll happen. So the only thing you can do is just relax. And when you are going through a tough moment, difficult moments, just get out of your own way and be consistent.”

If Franco does the little things during the course of that six-month grind, he should be able to take a big step to being the middle-of-the-order bat many (including Mike Schmidt) envisioned him becoming last year. In one at-bat on Wednesday, he showed his maturation as a major league hitter.

“One hundred RBI is the benchmark,” Mackanin said when asked if it’s those kinds of at-bats that can bump Franco’s total of 88 last year up in 2017. “Twelve more RBI, those are the kind of RBI that are easy to get with the infield back. (He can do that if) he concentrates on those at-bats – especially with a pitcher who is tough on you.

“We all know how tough Colon can be with movement and location, he knows what he’s doing. So if you face pitchers who are tough on you, you try to hit a single up the middle, you try to hit the ball the other way. When you feel good against some guys and have good numbers off of, then you do some damage. Hopefully, that’s coming across (to him).”

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