Phillies

Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

In the visiting clubhouse after Sunday's game in Washington, Matt Stairs made eye contact with a reporter and gave an implicit little nod that seemed to say, "OK. Not bad. It's a start."

During an interview earlier in the day, the first-year Phillies hitting coach had talked extensively about one of his pupils, Maikel Franco. Stairs praised Franco's talent and work ethic, and expressed the opinion that someday it would all come together for the recently turned 25-year-old third baseman, that ultimately Franco would grow from the struggles he has endured during the 2017 season and become the consistent middle-of-the-order run producer that the Phillies have long hoped he'd be.

"I still believe that inside that mind and body of his is a great player," Stairs said. "I really do."

A couple of hours later, the Phillies faced Stephen Strasburg, one of Washington's stud starting pitchers. Strasburg pitched eight shutout innings against the Phillies, running his scoreless innings streak to a franchise-record 34. He struck out 10 and gave up just two hits, both sharply hit singles by Franco.

Franco's two-hit day came after he'd belted a pair of home runs in the previous two games. The home runs followed a three-game stint on the bench to accommodate J.P. Crawford, who arrived in the majors for an audition last week. Crawford is getting time at third base because Franco, plagued by inconsistency at the plate this season, has not locked up the position long term. He's made himself an easy "sit" with his frequent cold spells.

Nonetheless, Stairs was pleased with Franco's work at the plate on Sunday and in the previous two games. Hitting coaches are tireless, underappreciated soldiers of the game, toiling for hours in batting cages and video rooms in the back corridors of ballparks long before the gates open to fans. They live and die with every at-bat their students take, quietly rejoicing in the successes and privately wincing when things don't go right.

Franco's .229 batting average and .683 OPS have caused more than a few winces in the Phillies organization this season. But this was a good weekend in Washington. Hence, Stairs' unspoken review — OK. Not bad. It's a start.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has spoken often this season about Franco's needing to make some adjustments at the plate because what he's been doing has simply not worked consistently.

Franco has tinkered with some things. He tried resting his hands on his shoulders during his setup at the plate — the Stairs-suggested strategy worked for Aaron Altherr this season and an old teammate named Jayson Werth years ago — for several games recently but that change did not last long.

Over the weekend in Washington, Franco incorporated a front-toe raise to his open stance. The hope is that it forces his momentum forward, toward the pitcher, and stops him from pulling off pitches. Franco even raised his hands slightly over the weekend.

Stairs wants to see more of that.

Over the weekend, during one of their frequent skull sessions, Stairs expressed his desire to see Franco raise his hands even more. In Franco's current setup, his hands sit around the height of the letters on his uniform top. Stairs would like to see Franco bring his hands up to around chin-high.

"I don’t want him to do it now," Stairs said. "Just think about it now. Mess around with it in BP and cage work."

Franco plans to play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic in November. Stairs would like to see him work on the adjustment then. On Sunday, Franco said he was open to the change and will work on it.

"Why not?" said Franco, one of the most upbeat guys in the Phillies clubhouse. "I'm open to everything, whatever will help me. I always want to learn more."

One of Franco's issues is that he often over-swings and pulls off the ball by opening his front hip.

How will raising his hands address that issue?

"There's too much movement from low to high and by the time he gets his hands up and goes toward the baseball, he's late," Stairs said. "When you're late, the first thing you do is cheat and you spin, everything flies open, your foot goes in the bucket and you pull off the baseball."

Stairs wants Franco to watch video of former American League MVP Miguel Tejada. Stairs and Tejada were teammates in Oakland.

"Not that I want him to hit like Tejada, but watch his path, watch his swing, watch his hands," Stairs said. "They have the same type of swing."

Stairs hopes that if Franco has results with the adjustment of his hands, success will follow and confidence — the magic ingredient in all things performance related — will come.

"I told Mikey I was in the exact same spot as you," Stairs said. "I hit .227 one year. I know what he's going through. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing."

Stairs actually believes Franco has a sound, basic understanding of the strike zone. But too often he swings at everything. And he's been an easy out in hitter's counts, batting just .187 when he's up in the count.

"When he's ahead in the count — bad hitter; he gets himself out," Stairs said. "Numbers don’t lie on that. He thinks he's going to get a cookie and he over-swings."

Stairs talks hitting the way Guy Fieri talks good eats — often, enthusiastically and to most everyone who crosses his path. Recently, he chatted with San Diego bench coach Mark McGwire about Franco.

"He loves the potential and thinks he's going to be fine once he gets his direction going toward the pitcher and improves his pitch selection," Stairs said.

"Mikey is still young and he has some of the best hands I've ever seen in baseball. He has thunder in his hands. People are going to see the numbers and say, 'You're crazy,' but ... patience."

All signs point to the front office having that patience for at least another year. Though Crawford has played some third — and it's not completely out of the question that he stays there — that's probably more a matter of finding a place to get some at-bats without completely disrupting Freddy Galvis' season. Crawford still projects mostly as the shortstop of the future with Galvis moving on either in a trade this winter or next summer or as a free agent after next season.

Franco's name was out there earlier this season as a trade candidate. The Phillies' ears are always open, but in the case of Franco, the potential returns were not good. Franco's poor season had hurt his value and rival teams were looking for a steal. The Phillies weren't and still aren't ready to give up on him.

Still to be determined, however, is whether Franco is this team's long-term third baseman. Manny Machado is only a season away from free agency and he has many fans in the Phillies hierarchy. All signs point to the Phillies' giving Franco more time to correct his flaws and reach his potential in 2018. Maybe in that time he builds trade value. Or maybe he shows himself to be a player the team can build around.

"I absolutely believe in Maikel Franco's future," general manager Matt Klentak said. "I think there's too much talent there. He has the bat speed, the strength, his defense has taken a step forward. All the components are there for Maikel to still be a really good player. I know his numbers right now aren't what a lot of people expected or hoped, but we still believe strongly in his future."

But that future hinges on Franco making improvements. And that improvement hinges on his making some adjustments at the plate. Some of the adjustments have already started. And to read Matt Stairs' mind: OK. Not bad. It's a start.

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.

Phillies add 4 pitching prospects to 40-man roster

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Phillies add 4 pitching prospects to 40-man roster

The Phillies added four promising pitching prospects to their 40-man roster on Monday. In a corresponding move, they subtracted a notable name.

Right-handers Franklyn Kilome, Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Taveras and lefty Ranger Suarez were all added to the roster, protecting them from being selected by another club in next month's Rule 5 draft.

The Phillies also added an infielder, Engelb Vielma, to the roster. He was claimed off waivers from the San Francisco Giants.

To make room for these additions, the team needed to clear three spots on its roster, which had been at 38. Left-handed pitcher Elniery Garcia cleared waivers and was sent outright to the minor leagues while right-handers Alberto Tirado and Mark Appel were designated for assignment. The Phillies will try to trade Tirado and Appel before placing them on waivers. If they clear waivers, they could stay in the system.

The Phillies cut Appel loose after he'd struggled with injury and ineffectiveness during two seasons in the organization. The 26-year-old right-hander from Stanford University had twice been a first-round draft pick, by Pittsburgh in 2012 and by Houston — No. 1 overall — in 2013. The Phillies acquired him from the Astros as part of the package for Ken Giles in December 2015, but he never lived up to his huge potential.

"A lot of the tools that Mark showed as an amateur that led to him being the No. 1 overall pick are still there," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. "He has simply struggled with performance. It's certainly not for lack of effort on his part. We think the world of the kid and wish him well. It was a tough decision."

Tirado, 22, was acquired from Toronto in July 2015 as part of the return for Ben Revere. He arrived with a fastball that could reach triple digits on the radar gun and that promise earned him a spot on the 40-man a year ago. Tirado suffered a shoulder injury early last season and struggled in the minors.

All four of the pitchers that the Phillies protected are products of the team's international scouting department. Taveras, 24, was a standout at three levels in the minors last season and could be in the picture in Philadelphia in 2018. He led the system in strikeouts in 2016 and 2017.

"He knows how to get guys out and often times that comes via the strikeout," Klentak said. "No matter where he pitches, he rises to the occasion and puts up a strong performance."

Kilome, 22, and Dominguez, 22, are both power arms who project to see significant time at Double A in 2018. Suarez, 22, should also get to Double A at some point in 2018. He had a 2.27 ERA in 22 starts at two levels of Single A ball in 2017.

"He may have been the breakout pitcher of the year for the Phillies," Klentak said. "We'd always heard a lot about him and this year he took his performance to another level.

"We're really excited for all four of these guys. All have worked extremely hard and they are all deserving of being added to our roster. Our international scouting operation, Sal Agostinelli and his group, continues to crank out players. They've done a great job. These four pitchers have earned this through their work ethic and performance. By no means is this the ultimate goal for them, but it's one step closer. We believe really strongly in the futures of these four pitchers."

Vielma, 23, is a top defensive shortstop who can also play second and third base. He was waived by Minnesota in September and claimed by the Giants, who let him go in a roster crunch.

"He's an intriguing claim," Klentak said. "He adds depth to our infield."

The Phillies’ roster is at 40. The team will have to clear space if it wants to add a player in next month's Rule 5 draft. Last November, the Phils added 11 players to the 40-man roster and still lost lefty reliever Hoby Milner to Cleveland. Milner failed to make the Indians' opening-day roster, returned to the organization in March and ended up making 37 appearances for the big club after coming up in late June. He was one of 12 rookies to make their big-league debut with the Phillies in 2017.

Notable players who were not protected include outfielders Carlos Tocci and Andrew Pullin and pitcher Brandon Leibrandt.

"One of the byproducts of a strong system is every year there are some tough omissions," Klentak said. "There are always tough calls. But we look at that as a good problem to have."