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March 28, 2019

Paul Hagen: Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco face challenges and opportunities in relegated roles

On the first day of a new baseball season, the focus of a howling sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park was all the shiny new prizes the Phillies could roll out for the first time. Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and David Robertson all made their debut appearances in red pinstripes.

Which in turn translated into a level of excitement on Thursday that hasn’t been evident done at the old ballyard in a long, long time.

In a convincing 10-4 win over the defending National League East champion Braves, though, much of the heavy lifting was done by third baseman Maikel Franco and centerfielder Odubel Herrera — two guys who have been around for awhile. And you know what they say about how familiarity can breed contempt.

That duo has more in common than their dreadlocks with dyed blond tips, a style that looks a little like a pineapple. Despite significant contributions in the past, both had seemingly been pushed to the margins both by their own inconsistency and the influx of imported talent. Just hours before Cy Young Award candidate Aaron Nola threw his first pitch, Gabe Kapler noted that six of the eight spots in the lineup were manned by players who will likely be in the lineup nearly every day.

The exceptions: Third and center. Franco was the “Opening Day third baseman” although Scott Kingery would also get a chance to show what he can do there, the manager said. And at bats would “continue to be earned” in center, her added.

Now, before every box of your handy pocket schedule has been accounted for, Harper and the rest will grab their share of headlines.

On Day 1, though, it was Herrera who broke a 1-1 tie in the third with an RBI single. And it was Franco’s three-run homer in the sixth that gave the Phillies some breathing room before Rhys Hoskins’ grand slam put the game away in the seventh. And that’s more than a little ironic since those are the two position players whose stock seemed to have fallen the most precipitously.

In his postseason postmortem last October, Andy Mac Phail all but walked Franco to the door and handed him a lovely parting gift. “The other team, maybe they’ll find the key,” the team president said when asked about the once-touted third baseman who led the team in hitting (.270), finished second in OPS (.780) and third in homers (22) and didn’t turn 26 until August.

That came after the Phils tried to trade for Manny Machado at the deadline, presumably to replace Franco. And after it twice appeared he was being phased out of the lineup, only to get a reprieve due to injuries to other players. The Phillies again pursued Machado in the offseason and were rumored to be considering Mike Moustakas if that didn’t pan out.

The first surprise, then, is that Franco is still even with the organization. He was also batting eighth, a big comedown for a player once considered a future fixture in the middle of the order.

“I’m not even thinking about that,” he said. “Right now I’m hitting in the eight hole, but I try not to even think about it. I just try to go out in any situation and do the best I can.”

Sure, but he’s a human being. Hearing the rumors he could be replaced, being dropped to the bottom of the order, that has to sting. 

“I know it’s crazy,” he said. “I just try not to think about it. Right now I just want to come in and do my best. Sometimes it’s tough, but it’s nothing you can control. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

For Herrera, 27, the most caustic criticism came from an anonymous scout, quoted in the Sports Illustrated Phillies preview. The scout called him a “clown” and a “(bleeping) dog.” He said Herrera was not “focused on playing the game the right way” and “hurt (the Phils) more than helped them.”

Remember, this refers to somebody who just two years ago signed a five-year contract to a cornerstone in the team’s rebuilding project.

“First of all, I was not aware of that. Second, I don’t really care,” said Herrera, who normally batted third last year but was slotted in the sixth spot on Thursday. “Everyone has his or her own opinion. Some people are going to say negative stuff. I try to focus on the positive stuff.”

Said Kapler: “This is a guy who’s misunderstood. He works really hard. He’s learning how to be focused as an athlete. But there’s no shortage of caring. There’s no shortage of work. There’s no shortage of willingness to dig in. My experience with Odubel is that he’s still learning and he’s got a lot of work to do. But he’s consistently been up for the challenge and he’s never shied away from a tough conversation where we’ve raised the bar for him and asked a little bit more of him.”

So what did we learn from Opening Day? Not much, really. Here’s the obligatory reminder that it’s just one game, that baseball is the longest season, that it would be a mistake to put too much weight on these nine innings – win or lose – when there are still 161 regular season games left to play.

Still, it’s worth noting that the Phillies won a game Thursday by getting big contributions from a couple guys who had been pushed down in the lineup and stripped of any real guarantee of playing time. And that, on a day that was expected to celebrate all that’s new, batters who were here in 2018 drove in eight of the 10 Phillies runs while Nola allowed one run in six innings.

Superstars can carry a team for stretches. But teams that make it to the postseason and play deep into October usually get help from all over the roster. And that’s exactly what the Phillies got in the opener.