Franco ranked among top 10 third-base prospects
Slugger, who belted 31 homers in Minors last season, will see time at first base in '14
As it stands now, Phillies prospect Maikel Franco is already one of the top third basemen in the Minor Leagues. In fact, Franco is ranked No. 4 on MLB.com's top 10 third-base prospects list.
Yet, this season, the spotlight just may fall on how well Franco performs at the other corner-infield position. While it's unclear how much first base Franco will actually play in 2014, the organization plans to get its top hitting prospect -- and No. 2 overall prospect -- his share of reps on the right side of the diamond.
The defensive experiment comes as a result of 23-year-old Cody Asche impressing enough in his Major League debut last season to, for the time being at least, stick as the Phillies' everyday third baseman. As a result, Franco, who received an invitation to the Phils' big league camp this spring, spent the offseason splitting time between first and third base in the Dominican Winter League.
"They told me, 'I want you to play first base and third base, too,'" Franco said. "And I said, 'I'll take that opportunity and I'll do whatever you want me to do.'"
For starters, it meant making 25 starts at first base this winter for Gigantes del Cibao -- three more than the 22 he made at his natural position. Before declaring Franco a converted first baseman, however, keep in mind the Phillies still have veteran superstar Ryan Howard under contract through 2016, with a club option for '17.
"I think it's important for us that we get him reps at both spots," said Joe Jordan, the Phils' director of player development. "We're not looking for him to take over Ryan Howard's position. We're just looking for an option, if we need it. He's going to be very proficient at first base. It's just a matter of getting more experienced over there."
Franco figures to get plenty of work defensively next month in Clearwater, Fla., where he also hopes to showcase his offensive prowess. The 21-year-old last season put up staggering numbers while splitting time between Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading.
Franco recorded a .299/.349/.576 slash line, with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 65 games with Clearwater before posting even better numbers at Reading. Following the midseason promotion, he put up a .339/.363/.563 line with 15 homers and 51 RBIs in 69 games. Overall, Franco finished the year with a .320 average to go along with his 31 home runs and 103 RBIs in 134 combined games.
"I'm not intimidated by a lot of hitters, but if I had to face him, I would be clueless what to throw him," said right-handed pitching prospect Ken Giles, who played alongside Franco during his time with Clearwater. "He's always a step ahead of the pitcher and has great plate discipline. Plus, when he locks in on a pitch, you better watch out."
One look at Franco's numbers suggests that Giles isn't alone when it comes to feeling lost about how to approach the slugger. However, Jesse Biddle -- Philadelphia's No. 1 ranked prospect and Franco's teammate last year at Reading -- believes he may have the slugger figured out.
"Maikel Franco? My scouting report is: curveball for a first-pitch strike, and then a fastball away -- got him to foul it off. And then I threw a good curveball to strike him out," Biddle said playfully, while a smiling Franco shook his head nearby. "You can go ask him about it.
"But seriously, I'll tell you what, though -- he is one heck of a hitter. He is so much fun to watch. Every time he gets in the box, our whole bench just goes quiet. He takes massive swings and when he connects with the ball, which he does a lot, it's just fun to watch what he can do."
The Phillies' coaching staff will have an up-close look next month at just what exactly Franco can do, though it's unclear where he will go from there. It's possible Franco will return to Reading to start the year, but he could also make the jump to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
For what it's worth, Franco's experience last season at Reading was nearly identical to Asche's Double-A stint. While Franco racked up 292 plate appearances over 69 games at Double-A, Asche in 2012 recorded 289 plate appearances over 68 games with Reading before progressing to Lehigh Valley -- and eventually the big leagues -- in 2013.
"We all worry about how guys are going to handle different things, and that's why we put them in big league camp," Jordan said. "He needs to be there. He needs to be around those players, and we'll see how he handles himself. And then that conversation will happen at a later date. That's a March conversation for me."
For now, Jordan prefers to see Franco continue to focus on mastering both corner-infield positions, while also maintaining his superb offensive production at the higher-level affiliates. Whether Franco breaks through at third base or first base, and just when that debut may come, remains to be seen.
"He needs to play both positions still. When you get to Double-A and Triple-A, before you get to the Major Leagues, the game gets faster at every level, you hear that all the time," Jordan said. "He needs more time at the upper levels. He needs more time up there where the game is a little faster, so we can make those types of decisions and do a good job with it."
As for Franco, he plans to continue welcoming any opportunity the Phils throw his way, especially when it comes in the form of an invitation to big league camp.
"I was so excited, because that's my goal, you know? That's everything I ever wanted," Franco said of playing with the big league club. "That's what I'm looking for, and I want to go there and play my best and show them what I can do."