CINCINNATI — Phillies officials have spent time over the last few days debating the immediate future of two players.
Maikel Franco and Spencer Howard.
Do they come up and lend a hand in the September playoff chase or not?
The right-hander has emerged as the organization's top pitching prospect this season. He's 23, strong-bodied, and has a full arsenal of pitches. Those with educated baseball eyes who've seen him pitch this season say, with the right handling, he could survive in the majors right now and help the Phillies down the stretch. Those charged with overseeing his development and ensuring that he has a long and meaningful impact on the starting rotation for years to come point to the fact that he's never thrown a pitch above Double A, and that he's never pitched with a big-league baseball as reasons to be conservative.
For now, Howard will start for Double A Reading in Game 1 of the Eastern League playoffs on Wednesday night.
It seems unlikely that he will be summoned to Philadelphia after that, but there could be some wiggle room.
The Phillies added pitcher Nick Pivetta and utility man Jose Pirela from Triple A before Tuesday night's game in Cincinnati.
At the time, manager Gabe Kapler was asked if he expected more additions beyond Franco, who is expected to be with the club on Thursday.
"No," Kapler responded, "but I would not rule it out."
In other words, depending on how Howard gets through Wednesday night's playoff start, and depending on where the Phillies are in their own playoff race and what their needs are … Spencer Howard is a maybe.
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Rosters expanded on Sunday, but Franco was not eligible to join the big-league club at that point because 10 days had not passed since he was sent to the minors for the second time in a month last week.
Once upon a time, Franco was a hot prospect, just like Howard is now, a middle-of-order bat with a strong arm at third base.
Franco was a regular in the majors by the time he was 22. He had three seasons in which he hit 20 or more homers and last season, despite losing his job then regaining it, led the team in batting average (.270), was second in OPS (.780) and third in homers (22).
None of this secured his future in the organization. The Phillies unsuccessfully pursued Manny Machado in July 2018 and again last winter. Franco reported to spring training where he was told he had to win his third base job. He opened this season with a bang — seven homers, 25 RBIs and a .858 OPS in the first 30 games, but struggled and hit .217 with a .626 OPS in his next 246 plate appearances. He was sent to the minors in early August as the Phils began using Scott Kingery at third base.
Sending Franco to the minors was a clear indication that his time in the organization had finally come to an end.
He will be traded in the coming weeks or months, or simply not be offered a contract and let go. Maybe his next team can find the key to unlocking his potential, as club president Andy MacPhail suggested 11 months ago. Maybe Franco, one of the best, most upbeat and team-first people to come through the Phillies' clubhouse in recent years, will rediscover his confidence with another team and enjoy a career breakthrough in his late 20s, like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista once did.
Sources say that over the last week there was talk of cutting Franco loose now — that would have given him time to hook on with a new team — but the Phillies decided his bat could be valuable off the bench over the final weeks of the season.
So Franco, who recently turned 27, returns Thursday to play out his time with the Phillies.
Maybe he can help them win a game or two before he moves on to a new club, a reality that's been a long time coming.
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