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.

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

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AP Images

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jerad Eickhoff is an important man in this Phillies season. He needs to be closer to the guy who pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 197 1/3 innings in 2016 than the one who had a 4.71 ERA in 128 innings last season.

It all starts with good health. Eickhoff, 27, missed time with an upper-back strain and a nerve issue near his right shoulder last season.

He is healthy now and has made a tweak in his mechanics to ease pressure on his shoulder. He made his spring debut with two hitless, scoreless innings in a 6-0 exhibition win over the University of Tampa on Thursday (more on the game here). Eickhoff threw 17 pitches, 14 of which were strikes. He struck out two, walked none and hit a batter. 

“No matter what game it is that you pitch in, you get that intensity, there’s a hitter in the box, you still get butterflies being back at it,” Eickhoff said. “Today was a big day, facing some competition. The live batting practice was checking off the first box. A game setting was kind of the second box, so I think the sky is the limit from here. I feel great.”

Eickhoff developed a mechanical flaw last season as his body would often fall toward first base after delivering the ball. That put pressure on his shoulder. He has tried to correct the flaw this winter by holding his glove a little higher before he releases the ball. That helps him get going toward home plate.

If healthy, Eickhoff will be in the starting rotation. (Former bench coach Larry Bowa is high on him). But he’s taking nothing for granted.

“I try to approach every spring like I’m trying to win a job,” Eickhoff said. “I have something to prove every year.”

Notes
• Andrew Knapp caught and batted leadoff. He worked a walk to lead off the game and that impressed manager Gabe Kapler. Kapler advised not to read into batting order positions this early in camp. 

“These are practice settings,” he said.

• The Phillies play their Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. Rotation candidates Nick Pivetta and Mark Leiter Jr. are expected to get some work. Non-roster invite Francisco Rodriguez, he of the 437 career saves, could also get an inning.

Future closer? Power-armed Seranthony Dominguez dazzles in opener

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USA Today Images

Future closer? Power-armed Seranthony Dominguez dazzles in opener

CLEARWATER, Fla. — This was a nice little glimpse of the future.

Seven of the eight pitchers used by the Phillies in Thursday’s 6-0 exhibition win over the University of Tampa were prospects who likely need a little more time in the minors, but could someday be mainstays in Philadelphia.

Jerad Eickhoff started and pitched two scoreless innings (see story). After him, prospects Jose Taveras, Tom Eshelman, Franklyn Kilome, Enyel De Los Santos, Seranthony Dominguez, Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez kept the shutout intact. None of the Phillies’ pitchers walked a batter, though Eickhoff did hit one.

“No walks, that’s fairly unusual for spring training,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It was like Command City. Guys were on top of it.”

Kapler singled out Dominguez, a strong-bodied, power-armed, 23-year-old right-hander who earned a spot on the 40-man roster in November. Dominguez allowed a leadoff single in the seventh then came back with three swinging strikeouts, all on high-80s sliders.

“He maintained his composure, had electric stuff and the bravado of a seasoned veteran,” Kapler said.

Dominguez, signed out of the Dominican Republic for $25,000 in 2012, touched 100 mph with his fastball as a starter in the Florida State League early last season. He ended up missing time with biceps tendinitis, but is healthy now. The Phillies have reduced his pitch mix from four to three (fastball, slider, changeup) and he will convert to the bullpen, where he profiles as a potential closer, this season. He is likely to open at Double A Reading. Don’t rule out seeing him in Philadelphia later this season if all goes well.

“As a bullpen guy, he could be a quick mover,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

“He has a top-of-the-scale fastball,” director of player development Joe Jordan said. “He has a chance to really dominate in the late innings.”