Phillies

Franco hears the wake-up call, vows improvement in 2018

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Franco hears the wake-up call, vows improvement in 2018

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Maikel Franco began last season as the Phillies’ cleanup hitter, one of the most important players in the lineup.

By the time September rolled around, he wasn’t even a full-time starter. There were nights when he sat so the team could take a look at J.P. Crawford.

“It was difficult,” Franco conceded after a workout at Phillies camp Wednesday.

Franco made it easy for the Phillies to take away playing time last season. Though he managed to lead the team in home runs (24) and RBIs (76), his OPS was a dreadful .690, the lowest among 18 major-league third basemen who had 400 or more plate appearances.

Looking back now, Franco says the loss of playing time was a wake-up call. He went home to the Dominican Republic for the winter knowing he needed to improve.

It started with getting in better shape. Team officials told him he needed to do so, "but I knew it, too," he said. He has reported to camp early. His midsection is noticeably trimmer and his upper body looks strong. His weight, he said, is between 218 and 220 pounds. He ended last season at 232.

During the offseason, Franco worked out regularly with instructor Manny Amador at the Phillies’ academy in the Dominican. Franco made no dramatic adjustments to his swing, but he did work on trying to elevate the ball more. He ranked 34th in the majors with 176 balls hit 95 miles per hour or harder in 2017. With that exit velocity, Phillies officials believe he will do more damage if he gets the ball in the air. He does not run well, so ground balls are not his friend. 

Launch angle isn’t the only area that Franco is looking to improve. Selectivity has been a career-long problem. He worked out regularly in the DR with new teammate Carlos Santana, who has outstanding strike-zone control. The two talked about the concept and Franco believes he is ready to make improvements in that area.

“This is a big year for me, no question,” said Franco, emerging from the batting cage and soaked in sweat after some extra work. “Everybody expected I would put up better numbers last year.

“I put it in my mind that I needed to be better and I worked hard in the offseason. I know I need to be more consistent. I expect more than I did last year. More walks, more RBIs, more on-base percentage, more home runs. I have to be more selective. Everything. Calm down and don’t get too aggressive. Don’t overswing. Put the ball in play.”

New hitting coach John Mallee will stress these areas of improvement with Franco.

This is a big year for the 25-year-old third baseman. Everyone knows Manny Machado will be a free agent at season’s end. And it’s well known that the Phillies like him and have the money to sign him. Even a big, breakout season from Franco might not get the Phillies off of Machado.

But a strong season will ensure Franco’s future somewhere. It would build some trade value.

“I’m confident that I am going to have a good season,” Franco said. 

Why? 

“Because I had an amazing offseason,” he said.

Well, Franco’s offseason wasn’t completely amazing. There was one highly publicized misstep. He and some winter ball teammates were photographed frolicking over drinks in the DR close to sunrise in early January. His team, the Giants, had a playoff game later that day. The club disciplined the players and Franco did not play again for the club.

“I was with friends,” he said. “We went out. We were having fun and somebody took a picture.

“I know I made a mistake. I will learn from it. It’s not going to happen again.” 

Injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic NL East picture

Injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic NL East picture

A little less than two weeks into the season, injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic picture in the NL East.

Two teams have played 11 games. One team has played seven. One has played four and another has played three.

The only NL East teams who haven't missed any early-season games are the Braves (7-4) and Mets (4-7). The Braves are 2½ games ahead of the Phillies and one game ahead in the loss column. 

The Phillies are in a better early-season position than the Mets just because the Mets have already accrued seven losses. The only two teams in the majors with more are the Pirates and Royals.

Though, which team would you rather be: The team that already has seven losses or the team that has five additional games to make up? It's an advantage for the Mets and Braves that they have less hectic remaining schedules than the rest of the division. The Phillies have 56 games left to play in just 54 days. The Mets and Braves have 49 games left in those same 54 days. 

The Phillies' first series with the Braves is this weekend at home after they finish with the Yankees. Early as it is, that series carries major significance. The Phillies will play 40% of their games against the Braves in this one weekend wraparound series from Friday through Monday. Going 1-3 or 0-4 against the Braves would put the Phillies in a deep hole from which their jam-packed schedule might not allow them to dig out. 

As the Phillies and Marlins have sat, the other three teams in the division have dealt with injuries. The Braves on Monday night lost Mike Soroka, their No. 1 starter. Just hours before his 23rd birthday, Soroka tore his right Achilles and is done for 2020. He is one of their most important players. Soroka was an All-Star last season who finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting to Pete Alonso and sixth in NL Cy Young voting. In 37 career starts, he's 15-6 with a 2.86 ERA. With Soroka out, the Braves have Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and a to-be-determined fifth starter. Not exactly a starting staff you look at and expect to ride to a division crown.

The Mets scratched three infielders on Monday — Jeff McNeil with back tightness, Robinson Cano with a groin strain and Amed Rosario with a quad strain. Yoenis Cespedes opted out of the 2020 MLB season over the weekend.

The Nationals are still without Stephen Strasburg, who has yet to make his season debut. Strasburg was scratched from his first start because of a nerve impingement in his right wrist. He's back to throwing off a mound but is still unlikely to pitch for the Nats until at least the weekend. At minimum, Strasburg will end up missing two turns through the rotation, which in a 60-game season represents one-sixth of the starts.

Reliever Will Harris, whom the Nats signed away from the Astros after beating them in the 2019 World Series, is on the IL with a groin strain. Two other Nats, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames, are dealing with back injuries.

Is it a coincidence to see these sorts of injuries early in the everyday grind of Major League Baseball after so much time off and an unconventional ramp-up period? No, probably not.

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