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Maikel Franco: "I have to show everybody I've improved and that I'm learning."
by Scott Butler 3/11/17

Maikel Franco Odubel Herrera

Maikel Franco was maddening to watch last season. He brought no game plan with him to plate too frequently and swung from his cleats way too often. Some hitters - like Cesar Hernandez or Carlos Ruiz - almost are forced to hack in that manner if they want to put one in the seats. But there is no need for that from a player with Franco's natural power and hitting ability. His flawed approach did not end there. He frequently put himself in bad hitter's counts and simply gave away too many at-bats. Aiming for the second deck on every pitch you can reach is not a smart way to hit.

"The area that he has to develop better is game-planning at home plate and understanding there is a guy in the batter's box behind him and that a walk with men on second and third is a possibility," Mike Schmidt said. "His desire to drive in 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."

Is Maikel Franco willing and capable to execute such a game plan? If his approach to the offseason is any indication, the answer is yes.

“Last year I didn’t really work that hard – I was working, but, you know?” Franco said in January. “This year I’ve been waking up all the time at 5:40 in the morning. I’m going in and doing my stuff, I’m taking ground balls. And I go to the field twice during the day. That’s the key. That was my goal.”

People in positions of power are oftentimes only as good as the people they surround themselves with. If the same holds true with ballplayers, Franco might be well on his way to stardom. This winter, Franco followed the routine of free agent reliever and fellow Dominican Republic native, Neftali Feliz.

“He’s from my city so I’d go with him and I’d do everything with him – everything,” Franco said. “I changed how I eat. But I’ve also worked hard. I’ve been going to the weight room more often. I’ve just pushed myself this year, I’m getting better.”

Obviously Franco needs more work on his brain than he does on the rest of his body, but one can only hope that the type of person who wakes up early, works out hard, and actively seeks out someone to push and drive them, is the same person who is willing to apply those same efforts to every other aspect of his game.

"Sometimes, Maikel looks like, 'Where's his mind?'" Schmidt said. "He kind of sometimes lets moments in games go based upon the score or based upon attitude. I'm not saying this disrespectfully -- it's normal. Not everyone is like Pete Rose. He knows what's happened in every at-bat for every player on the team during the game. He's sitting on the top step of the dugout screaming at the other team. Not everyone is like that. Your mind can wander and I think sometimes his does a little bit."

If the numbers have anything to say about it, Franco's mind wandered last season...a lot.

Entering last season, Franco had the makings of the next core player of the Phillies and one you might consider building an entire team around. He hit .280 with 14 home runs in 2015 with an .840 OPS in 80 games in 2015.

One year later, Franco regressed. His average dropped 25 points and his .733 OPS was more than a 100-point decline from the previous season. Franco’s OPS ranked 19th out of 24 major league qualifying third basemen in 2016. His 1.2 WAR ranked tenth on the team, just behind Freddy Galvis.

Franco understands his flaws - or at least he says he does - and feels the first step to improving on his numbers is changing his work habits. That starts with continuing his early wake-up calls in Clearwater. “I have to do that because you just have to continue to work hard, and our days start early there, too. I just want to get used to it.”

Now that he is in Clearwater, it's a matter of bringing his new work habits with him to the batter's box.

"Most of the time in 2016, I just went to home plate and didn't have a plan," said Franco, who batted .255 with 25 homers and 88 RBIs. "I would just swing at everything, swing at every pitch. Now I really think about how this year is going to be really important and have to know what I'm doing and show everyone my plate discipline and selection at home plate. Make them throw me my pitch and put good contact on it."

Those words right there literally gave me goose bumps - that acknowledgement might be the most positive development in this entire offseason.

Pete Mackanin seems to feel the same way, albeit in a more subdued manner.

"I'm optimistic for a couple reasons," Mackanin said. "Number one, he's identified what he needs to do. Number two, Matt Stairs is the new hitting coach. I think a new voice will be helpful to make those adjustments. Just to hear it from someone else.

"And number three, I think it's because he's at the point in his career when he's been told enough how good he can be. I think that's going to sink in."

Whether or not it sinks in this season might determine if Franco plays the next decade in Philadelphia or somewhere else. The Phillies' front office is very clear that they want selective hitters who work counts, work pitchers, and grind out at-bats. Odubel Herrera is that type of hitter and the Phillies gave him a contract.

To this point in his career, Franco has not been that player, and the 2017 season may determine if the Phillies' brass see him as a part of their future plans. The Phillies have money to spend, and many in the organization see Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado - a free agent after the 2018 season- as a potential target . Several decision makers - namely Andy MacPhail - have familiarity with Machado during their time in Baltimore, making the 2017 campaign an important one for Franco to make his case that there is no need for the those eyes to wander.

Exhibit A in that case exists in Clearwater.

"I have to show everybody I've improved and that I'm learning," Franco said. "When I went to winter ball, I just tried to do my own thing, see a pitch to hit and how more discipline at the plate because I know this year is going to be really important for me."

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