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.

Phillies' relievers let the club down again in tough loss to Cardinals

Phillies' relievers let the club down again in tough loss to Cardinals

BOX SCORE

The pregame talk centered around the Phillies’ beleaguered bullpen. Both manager Gabe Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak expressed confidence in the unit (see story).

Well …

Said bullpen gave up three killer runs in the late innings in a 7-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night.

Tommy Hunter let a two-run lead get away in the top of the seventh inning as the Cardinals took a 6-4 lead. The Phillies rallied to tie the game on a two-run double by Rhys Hoskins in the bottom of the eighth. Hoskins hit a 101-mph fastball from Jordan Hicks. The Cardinals, however, went ahead for good on a two-out solo homer by Matt Carpenter against Seranthony Dominguez in the top of the ninth. Carpenter hit an 0-2 fastball that registered 98 mph. Dominguez threw all fastballs in the showdown and Carpenter was waiting for one.

Vince Velasquez turned in a solid start for the Phillies and exited with one out in the seventh inning, two men on base and a two-run lead. Hunter came on and got the second out of the inning. However, he then allowed three straight hits, including a pair of two-run doubles, as the Cardinals tied the game then took the lead.

Hunter, signed to a two-year, $18 million contract in the offseason, left the mound to boos after the frame.

The Phillies’ bullpen has been among the worst in baseball in June. It has a 6.17 ERA in the month and has given up 64 hits in 54 innings.

The Phillies scored single runs in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings in building a 4-2 lead. Carlos Santana drove in two runs with a ground out in the first inning and a solo homer in the fifth. Odubel Herrera continued to heat up with a solo homer in the third, his fourth long ball in the last five games. Cesar Hernandez drew a one-out, bases-loaded walk for a run in the fourth. The Phils had two more shots to get more runs against Luke Weaver in the inning but Hoskins popped up and Herrera took a called third strike as the Phils left the bases full.

Velasquez gave up just two runs, both on solo homers, through the first six innings. He got the first out in the seventh then did Hunter no favors by giving up a single and hitting a batter to put two runners on base as Kapler went to the bullpen.

Before the game, Kapler proclaimed that Dominguez would be available. Kapler likes to use him in the game’s biggest moment, but in this case he went to Hunter, probably because the right-hander features a cutter that works well against left-handed hitters. Carpenter, a left-handed hitter, tied the game with a two-out double. He hit a 1-0 curveball. Two batters later, Jose Martinez clubbed a two-run double to put the Cards ahead.

Dominguez came into the game in the ninth and struck out the first two batters before Carpenter stroked another big hit to break the tie and send the Phillies to a demoralizing loss.

Crawford exits
J.P. Crawford, who started at third base, was plunked on the left hand by a pitch in the fourth inning. He stayed in the game briefly then was replaced by Maikel Franco. Kapler said after the game that Crawford suffered a fracture and will miss four to six weeks.

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Matt Klentak, Gabe Kapler agree on how Phillies should use Seranthony Dominguez

Matt Klentak, Gabe Kapler agree on how Phillies should use Seranthony Dominguez

Matt Klentak and Gabe Kapler are in lock-step agreement when it comes to how bullpen weapon Seranthony Dominguez has been deployed.

Kapler, the Phillies skipper, hasn’t ruled out using Dominguez as a classic, ninth-inning closer someday. But he prefers to use the hard-throwing right-hander as a kill shot in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning, whenever he determines the game to be on the line.

Klentak, the general manager, shares that philosophy and that’s not a surprise. Their shared baseball ideals and a dedication to new-school practices made Kapler an attractive choice when Klentak went searching for a new manager after last season.

“The argument against (using Dominguez exclusively in the ninth inning) is that the ninth inning is not always the highest-leverage situation,” Klentak said Tuesday afternoon. “You can blow a save in the seventh or the eighth or the ninth. Emotionally, it stings more when it happens in the ninth because you feel like you're right there. You're just about to win the game. But if you never get to the ninth inning with a lead in the first place, you never have a chance to win that game. So sometimes using your best relievers earlier in the game is what makes the most sense.”

By all indications, the Phillies are trying to come up with a dependable ninth-inning man from their current bullpen mix. That would allow Kapler to continue to use Dominguez as a wild card. Luis Garcia and Hector Neris got looks in the ninth. Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano will get some looks there. Pat Neshek might get an occasional call there when he returns. Down the road, others will get a look.

The NL East rival Washington Nationals went out and traded for a closer, Kelvin Herrera, on Monday. Klentak would not say whether he was in the mix for Herrera, but he did not rule out trading for bullpen help in the coming weeks — if the Phillies remain in the hunt.

“There's been a handful of [trade] conversations,” Klentak said. “I wouldn't say that the trade market has been hot at this point. Once you get through the draft, those conversations start. It's the proverbial feeling-out process, but I guess every once and a while that might lead to something.”

Before making a trade, Klentak will first try to fill bullpen holes from within. He mentioned that Neshek could be the biggest bullpen acquisition in the game once he’s ready (see story).

“First and foremost, we really do like and trust the group of relievers that we have,” he said. “I am well aware that to date we have not settled on a single closer. I think at some point we might. If organically it works and that's the way things shake out, I think we're open to that. If we had Brad Lidge on this team, he would close. If we had Billy Wagner on this team, he would close. If we had Jonathan Papelbon on this team, he would close. We don't have one of those guys. So we're making due with what we have, which is a pretty good group. Guys like Arano, Dominguez, Ramos — these guys are having, quietly or not-so-quietly, some really good years. Tommy Hunter is having, arguably, the best year of his career right now.

“That doesn't minimize the fact that we've had some really tough losses, some really deflating ninth-inning meltdowns. But the group itself is really talented and we're confident in it. I think at some point in the near future we're going to get Pat Neshek back, who while not a traditional closer, is probably as good a bullpen arm as a team is going to add in the next six weeks. We will see what's available in the trade market — which players are available, what the costs are. We will probably look at that in free agency as well. But we have to maintain the proper perspective on any potential acquisition.”

That perspective involves weighing where the Phillies are in the standings, how realistic their chances at making the postseason are and what the cost in prospects surrendered would be. Despite the improvements the Phillies have made this season, the front office is still in a building mode and it does not want to mortgage the future.

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