Phillies

Rest, Manuel spark red-hot Maikel Franco

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Rest, Manuel spark red-hot Maikel Franco

MINNEAPOLIS – No one thought it was going to come easy for Phillies prospect Maikel Franco right out of the gate this season.

Yes, he had a huge season in 2013 -- .320/31/103 -- but he was making the jump to Triple A after less than 300 plate appearances above the Single A level and he was still just 21 years old.

Conventional wisdom suggested the young third baseman from the Dominican Republic would take his lumps for a while and he did. He was hitting just .209 after an 0-for-5 performance on June 29. That’s when Dave Brundage and Sal Rende, the manager and hitting coach, respectively, for the Phillies’ Triple A Lehigh Valley club, suggested that Franco take a couple days off.

“They told me to just watch the game,” Franco said at Major League Baseball’s Futures Game on Sunday. “Relax. Relax your mind. It was good for me.”

Sure was.

Franco went 4 for 4 his first day back in the lineup and has been on a tear since.

He entered his second straight trip to the Futures Game, the Who’s Who event of elite baseball prospects, hitting .390 with a 1.126 OPS over a nine-game stretch. In that span, he had six doubles, three triples, one home run and 11 RBIs.

That’s the thunder Phillies officials came to expect last season.

“It was a little bit harder because you're facing really good pitchers,” Franco said of the jump to Triple A. “Some of those pitchers have played four years in the big leagues and come down here. For me, it’s a little bit harder.

“But everything is going good right now. I’m enjoying the games.”

Coming out of spring training, Phillies officials wanted Franco to work on shortening his stroke and using the middle of the diamond. One scout who has watched Franco this season said it was clear Franco was working on those adjustments in batting practice but he was inconsistent in taking them into games.

Lately, Franco’s swing has been coming around and that has led to the one thing all good hitters have …

“I’m feeling confident in my game,” he said.

Franco spoke glowingly about the tutoring he has received from Rende.

“He’s a good hitting coach,” Franco said.

Franco also revealed that his hot streak coincided with a visit from Charlie Manuel, the former Phillies manager who has gone back to his roots, quietly working with young hitting prospects.

“I enjoyed it,” Franco said. “Charlie was there for four days.”

Franco said Manuel made some suggestions on his stride and the positioning of his hands. Manuel also went to work on the area between Franco’s ears.

“He told me I was a good hitter and don’t feel pressure,” Franco said. “He told me to stay positive. It was good.”

Franco flied out to center field twice in Sunday’s Futures Game. His World team lost to the U.S. team, 3-2.

Now he returns to Lehigh Valley, looking to keep his hot streak alive. He hopes to produce well enough (and play well enough at third base) to get a look in Philadelphia in September. The Phillies could be deep into a retooling effort by then, so it might make some sense to let Franco get a taste of the majors -- provided he has a strong finish to his minor-league season.

Franco can also play first base. It is unclear which position he will play in the majors. If the Phillies could somehow move Ryan Howard after this season -- they’d have to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that would remain on his contract to make that happen -- Franco could be in play at first base next season. It’s also possible he would stay at third. Team officials have talked about the possibility of Cody Asche playing left field for a couple of years.

These are questions that will be answered down the road. For now, Franco just needs to keep playing and swinging the bat as well as he has recently.

“I would love to come up in September, why not?” Franco said. “That’s where I want to be. Hopefully I will be ready.

“My plan is to stay true, keep working hard, and have fun. We'll see what happens.”

Phillies well positioned to make a run at freed Braves' prospects

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Phillies well positioned to make a run at freed Braves' prospects

Teams all over baseball, including the Phillies, are ready to pounce on a bevy of young international talent that became available Tuesday.

Major League Baseball punished the Atlanta Braves for a host of international signing violations by stripping the club of 13 minor-league prospects (see story). MLB also banished former Braves general manager John Coppolella from working in the game for life.

In the summer of 2016, MLB found the Boston Red Sox in violation of international signing rules and stripped that club of five international prospects. Included in that group was Simon Muzziotti, an outfielder from Venezuela. The Red Sox had initially signed Muzziotti for $300,000 in 2015. He was declared a free agent a year later and the Phillies swooped in and signed him for $750,000. Now 18, Muzziotti played for the Phillies' Gulf Coast League team in 2017.

The list of players set free on Tuesday includes 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, who received a $4.25 million signing bonus in 2016. Six other players that received signing bonuses of $1 million or more were also set free. The group includes Venezuelan catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, who received a $3.53 million bonus and Dominican infielder Yunior Severino, who received a $1.9 million bonus.

The Phillies are well positioned to make a run at some of these new international free agents and past practice says they will. The club added to its current international signing pool in a couple of trades last summer and has about $900,000 remaining. More money can be acquired in trades and applied to the current pool. A team can also use money from next year's pool — that market opens in July — to sign a player, though those funds cannot be used to augment the current pool.

Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani is the prize of this winter's international market. While the deep-pocketed Phillies have interest in Otani, he is subject to international signing bonus rules and pool limits. Translation: Signing him is not simply a matter of being the highest bidder. The team that gets Otani will likely be a contender in win-now mode with a history of signing Japanese talent. An American League club that could offer Otani at-bats (he wants to hit, as well as pitch) would be the best fit.

So, the Phillies' international splash this winter could come from the fallout of the Braves' signing controversy.

The former Braves' prospects are eligible to begin signing with new clubs on Dec. 5. They are:

Kevin Maitan, SS
Juan Contreras, RHP
Yefri del Rosario, RHP
Abrahan Gutierrez, C
Juan Carlos Negret, OF
Yenci Pena, SS
Yunior Severino, 2B
Livan Soto, SS
Guillermo Zuniga, RHP
Brandol Mezquita, OF
Angel Rojas, SS
Antonio Sucre, OF
Ji-Hwan Bae, SS

MLB Notes: Braves lose 13 international players in sanctions

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MLB Notes: Braves lose 13 international players in sanctions

ATLANTA -- Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred hit the Atlanta Braves with heavy sanctions, including the loss of 13 players, on Tuesday for rules violations committed by the team in the international player market.

Manfred also placed former Braves general manager John Coppolella on the permanently ineligible list. Former Braves Special Assistant Gordon Blakeley, who was the team's international scouting chief, is suspended from performing services for any team for one year.

Manfred said an investigation conducted by Major League Baseball determined the Braves circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017 by moving bonus pool money from one player to boost another player's contract.

Most notable among the players the Braves will lose is Kevin Maitan, an infielder from Venezuela who signed for $4.25 million in 2016 (see full story).

Yankees: Judge has left shoulder surgery
NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees say slugger Aaron Judge had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder and is expected to be ready for spring training.

The operation was performed Monday by Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. The Yankees say the procedure involved a loose-body removal and cartilage cleanup.

The 25-year-old Judge hit .284 with 52 homers and 114 RBIs in 155 games this season, helping New York make it to the AL Championship Series, where they lost to the eventual World Series champion Astros. He was a unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year and finished second to Houston infielder Jose Altuve in the AL MVP race.

MLB: Morgan urges voters to keep steroid users out of HOF
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is urging voters to keep "known steroid users" out of Cooperstown.

A day after the Hall revealed its 33-man ballot for the 2018 class, the 74-year-old Morgan argued against the inclusion of players implicated during baseball's steroid era in a letter to voters with the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The letter from the vice chairman of the Hall's board of directors was sent Tuesday using a Hall email address.

"Steroid users don't belong here," Morgan wrote. "What they did shouldn't be accepted. Times shouldn't change for the worse."

Hall voters have been wrestling with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs for several years. Baseball held a survey drug test in 2003 and the sport began testing for banned steroids the following year with penalties. Accusations connected to some of the candidates for the Hall vary in strength from allegations with no evidence to positive tests that caused suspensions (see full story).

Cubs: Venable leaves front office to be base coach
CHICAGO -- Will Venable is leaving the Chicago Cubs front office to be their first base coach.

The former major league outfielder was hired last summer as a special assistant to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

The 35-year-old Venable replaces Brandon Hyde, who has been promoted to bench coach for manager Joe Maddon.

The Cubs also announced Tuesday that they had hired Jim Benedict as a special assistant to baseball operations. Benedict spent the previous two seasons as the vice president for pitching development for the Miami Marlins.