We forget sometimes how difficult it is to become an established everyday player, one that is consistently good and capable of handling the physical and mental grinds that come with playing a three-hour game every day for six straight months. Guys like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Manny Machado make it look so easy that we don’t realize they are by far the exception rather than the rule.
Most major-leaguers must crawl before they walk and the majority fall flat on their face and disappear before they become solid big-leaguers, let alone all-stars or superstars. They come in full of hope and confidence. They leave dejected and defeated by the rising velocity of today’s pitchers and nasty breaking balls that they flailed at with no chance of making contact. Think Cody Asche. Or Domonic Brown. Or Darin Ruf. There are lots of guys like that every year on just about every big-league roster.
That long windup brings us to the subject of Maikel Franco, the enigmatic Phillies third baseman who has been both benched and the subject of trade rumors just in the last month. When manager Gabe Kapler decided a little more than a month ago that rookie J.P. Crawford was going to get the lion’s share of playing time at third base while the Phillies continued to develop rookie Scott Kingery at shortstop, it appeared to be the end of the road for Franco in Philadelphia. He probably wasn’t going to have to go home, but he couldn’t stay here.
Kapler tried to make it sound like everything would be OK even though the most veteran of his players was going to be spending the majority of time on the bench, but the manager did also make one very revealing comment.
“We don’t have a huge sample on J.P.,” Kapler said. “And we don’t have a huge sample on Scott at the major-league level. We’re collecting that. The only guy that we really know a whole lot about is (Franco).”
The fact that the guy they knew the most about was going to be the guy that was going to play the least spoke volumes. Eleven days later, Crawford broke his hand and everything changed. And maybe, just maybe, Kapler and the Phillies are finding out something about Maikel Franco that they did not already know.
Given another opportunity and down to perhaps his last chance, the third baseman has come out swinging since returning to the lineup in a full-time role June 20. In 20 games since that date, he was hitting .359 with six doubles, three home runs and nine RBIs. His overall batting average has risen from .245 to .272 and his on-base percentage has gone from .290 to .320.
Perhaps Franco is simply in a hot stretch. He has had them before. June and July have always been the best months of his career. It is also possible, however, that Franco is finally becoming the player the Phillies hoped he would when they signed him for $100,000 as a Dominican teenager in 2010 then watched him rise as high as No. 17 on Baseball America’s prospect list as he climbed through their minor-league system.
International players sign at 16, so by the time they reach 25 it feels as if they have been around forever, especially if they have not achieved star status. Franco does not turn 26 until late next month and there are plenty of examples of guys who have struggled as long as him before reaching star status at around his current age.
One of them, in fact, was the recent subject of trade rumors to the Phillies. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas, a former second overall pick who is likely to be moved before the July 31 trade deadline, was an all-star in 2015 and 2017 and is having another solid season this year. But his first four years in the big leagues were painstakingly difficult.
By comparison, in fact, Franco has been a much player than Moustakas was during his first four seasons with the Royals. Through 2014, Moustakas, at the age of 25, had hit .236 with 52 home runs and 199 RBIs. He had .290 on-base percentage and .668 OPS. Since then, he has hit .271 with an .817 OPS, made two all-star teams and won a World Series. He’s not a superstar, but he is an established everyday player.
Cincinnati’s Eugenio Suarez has emerged as an all-star and superstar this season — he leads the National League with 69 RBIs — at the age of 26. The two had very similar numbers through their first three big-league seasons and Suarez is 11 months older than Franco. Something obviously clicked for Suarez last season and the Reds gave him a seven-year, $66-million contract during spring training.
Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers is another player who has been linked to the Phillies in trade rumors and his career, of course, is going to lead him to the Hall of Fame. But six seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he had a .262 career average with a .320 on-base percentage and a .748 OPS. And then, at the age of 25, his career took off.
The point here is that maybe we don’t know nearly as much about Maikel Franco as we think.