Opinion Pieces

Maikel Franco’s Last Chance

 Seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for the 2015 Phillies. The club ranked 29th in ERA (trailing only the Rockies), second to last in runs, and had 32 less defensive runs saved than the next closest team. Not only did the 2015 Phillies have the worst record in the MLB at 63-99, they also lacked any hyped prospects capable of convincing the Philly faithful that there were better days ahead.

That was until 22-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco arrived on the scene. In the final 80 games of what an otherwise dreadful 2015 season, the powerful Dominican-born was a beacon of hope by hitting .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs.

Desperate for anything that resembled hope, fans clung to Franco, labeling him as the future of the franchise before he had even played half of a season. The overblown hype surrounding Franco was not limited to just fans either. At the end of the season, seemingly every coach in the Phillies organization spoke glowingly about Franco’s potential.

Franco arrived in Spring Training in 2016 as a 22-year old that was already being hailed as the Phillies savior. Even the Phillies coaches were outspoken about the expectations they had for Franco. Manager Ryne Sandberg told reporters that he fully expected Franco to be a  “legitimate middle order of the hitter” while bench coach Larry Bowa exclaimed “We’ve got a stud at third!” in an interview with Jim Salisbury of CSNPhill.com back in 2015.

Articles with titles such as “Rookie Phenom Maikel Franco Gives Phillies the Next Franchise Centerpiece” and “Phillies rookie Maikel Franco draws comparisons to Albert Pujols” circulated throughout the Philly media, unfairly raising expectations for a player with just 330 career at-bats.

Entering his first full season with the weight of the world on his back, all the hype that was built during the offseason hype quickly evaporated as Franco failed to live up to expectations. 

Despite contributing just 2.4 wins above replacement since debuting in 2015, every Spring Training there are delusional optimists who still wonder if this will be the year that Franco puts it all together. If anyone reading this post is still asking themselves this same question, you can stop reading right now, the answer is no. 

Not only has Franco refused to make any adjustments at the plate after his dreadful 2016 campaign, he actually doubled down on his bad habits. Regardless of which baseball analytics website you prefer, you will find Franco’s name at the bottom of the third base rankings. 

In the past three seasons, Franco’s across-the-board deficiencies went largely unnoticed as the Phillies sat comfortably at the bottom of the NL East. But as the Phillies near the completion of their rebuild and ready themselves for contention, they need to do something about their third base situation. 

Before I move on to possible avenues for replacing the Phillies worst everyday player, I think it is important to understand just how bad Franco has been in all facets of the game.

We will start with Franco’s offensive production, which is often times (incorrectly) said to be the best aspect of his game.

The truth is that Franco is so anemic offensively that for the sake efficiency, I thought it would be easier to show his ineptitudes by using a table. As the table below shows, there is virtually no chance of a sudden turnaround for Franco. 

Maikel Franco’s Offensive Ranks Amongst Third Baseman in 2017:

Statistic MLB Rank Among 3Bs Closest Player Comparison
Batting Average 3rd lowest (.230) Mark Trumbo
On-Base Percentage Last (.281) Darwin Barney
BB% (Walk Rate) 5th lowest (6.6%) Gorkys Hernandez
K-BB% 7th lowest (0.43) Sandy Leon
Hard Contact Rate 3rd lowest (30.9%) Darwin Barney
Soft Contact Rate 3rd highest (20.8%) Adam Rosales
Ground Ball Percentage 2nd highest (45.4% Aledmys Diaz
Infield Fly Ball Percentage 3rd highest (16.3%) Mike Napoli
O-Swing% 8th highest (31.5%) Jorge Bonifacio
SwStr% 7th highest (10.5%) Alcides Escobar
SpD Rating 3rd lowest (1.5) Justin Bour

Now you see why that would have taken so long to type out in a paragraph. These numbers don’t even warrant an explanation. Franco is an undisciplined hitter who struggles to make quality contact and frequently gives the defense automatic outs with a high frequency of ground balls and pop-ups. He hits the ball with roughly the same authority as Darwin Barney, draws walks at rates equal to renowned free swingers Javier Baez and Tim Beckham, and provides as much as speed on the basepaths as the 6’3” 265 lb. Justin Bour. If there is one positive takeaway from Maikel Franco’s offensive profile it is this …. there are 29 fan bases that don’t have to watch him every night.  

With such abysmal offensive numbers, the Phillies must have some justification for giving Franco 143 starts last season, so perhaps what Franco lacked at the plate he made up for with the glove. To test this hypothesis, let’s dig deeper into the defensive metrics.

Below is a table showing Franco’s defensive performance, once again using comparable players to provide context:

Maikel Franco’s Defensive Ranks Amongst Third Baseman in 2017:

Defensive Metric MLB Rank Among 3Bs Closest Player Comparison
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) 63rd (-4) Joey Gallo, Miguel Sano, Pablo Sandoval
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) 71st (-4.7) Ryon Healy
RngR (Range Runs) 70th (-3.1) Nick Castellanos
SABR Defensive Index (SDI) 3rd worst (-6.7) Miguel Sano

**The SABR Defensive Index is widely regarded as the most comprehensive defensive metric available. For the last half-decade, the SDI has been used to help select the Gold Glove Winners, carrying a weight of approximately 25% in the selection process.

I could provide you with more data regarding Franco’s defense, but you probably get the point: Franco is not a good defensive third baseman.

Franco boots ball.jpg
Maikel Franco awkwardly lunges for baseball after booting a grounder (Boston Herald)

If the chart above led you to believe that Franco’s lack of production was his biggest obstacle to success, I regret to inform you that Franco was actually worse with the glove.

While the defensive metrics speak volumes, the list of comparable defenders might be the most alarming part of this entire article. Out of the five players whose performance most closely resemble Franco’s defensive ability at third base, two of the players were transitioned to designated hitter (Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano), two were switched to left field and first base (Nick Castellanos and Ryon Healy, respectively), and the other was Pablo Sandoval.

Admittedly, I probably went overkill on proving just how poor Franco’s all-around game has been, but now that his value (or lack thereof) has been established, let’s try to figure out what the Phillies can do with the guy who is undoubtedly their weakest link.

As I see it, the Phillies have four options available, each with its fair share of consequences.

Option 1 – Move Franco to First Base

Of all the routes the Phillies can take, this is the one that probably makes the least amount of sense. While a shift across the diamond could help to solve his defensive woes, the Phillies already have phenom Rhys Hoskins and free agent signee Carlos Santana blocking him at the position.

Option 2 – Find a Trade Partner for Franco

Even though I have spent the entirety of this article bashing every aspect of Franco’s game, there are likely a number of teams that may be willing to take a flyer on the 25-year-old third baseman in hopes that they can overhaul a broken approach at the plate. Obviously, the acquiring club would have their work cut out for them, but with three more years of team control, it is not inconceivable that a rebuilding team with nothing to lose takes a chance on Franco. Given his subpar defensive ability, Franco could fit well with an American League team in need of a designated hitter. Coming off consecutive seasons in which he was one of the worst players in all of baseball, Franco will never have a lower acquisition cost on the open market. 

Option 3 – Move Franco to Bench Role:

Benching Franco makes sense purely from the standpoint that the Phillies are worse when he is on the field. The problem with relegating Franco to a bench role is the fact that he possesses none of the skills a team typically seeks out of a bench player. Franco hits poorly against both lefties and righties, making him a poor candidate for a platoon role. His inadequate defense removes any chance of him being a late-inning defensive replacement, and his complete lack of speed makes him ineligible for pinch-running, I suppose he could be a decent pinch hitter late in games, but if the occasional pinch-hitting opportunity is the only thing he can offer, keeping him around seems like a waste of a roster spot. Not to mention that if the Phillies moved Franco to the bench, they would be left with the question of who he is replacement would be. Cesar Hernandez is settled at third base, J.P. Crawford is etched in as the shortstop of the future, and top second base prospect Scott Kingery lacks the arm strength to play the hot corner. Right now, the highest rated third baseman the Phillies have in their system right now is Cole Stobbe, a 20-year-old with no experience above Low-A.

Moving Franco into a bench role would also hold more value if he could be used as the short end of a platoon split against left-handed pitching. Unfortunately, Franco has produced at a rate 10% below league average against lefties in his career.

Without a logical role that Franco could fill for the Phillies this season, they may have to just endure another season of poor production from him and then non-tender him once he becomes arbitration eligible in the winter. Due to an outdated arbitration system that rewards counting stats rather than actual value, Franco could actually get a decent pay raise in his first round of arbitration. If an arbitration panel rewards Franco for averaging 24.5 home runs and 82 RBIs the last two seasons, expect the Phillies to cut ties with him.

Option 4 – Sign Free Agent

With the lowest payroll in the MLB and a clear need at third base, signing a free agent to replace Franco at the hot corner seems like the most logical option for a Phillies team that has an extremely talented crop of young position players (with the exception of Franco). While the Phillies have been connected to Mike Moustakas, since Moose has declined his qualifying offer, Philadelphia would have to forfeit draft picks and pay him a higher annual salary than more affordable options such as Eduardo Nunez, Todd Frazier, or Trevor Plouffe. Bringing on one of these mid-tier third basemen for a year would improve the club in the short term while still allowing them to break the bank on free agent third baseman Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson next Winter.  

Despite outlining a number of routes that the Phillies could take to address their third base situation, it is likely that the club will give Franco one last shot to prove himself in 2018. 

At one point in time, Maikel Franco legitimately looked like he could be an MLB star, but with 402 career games and 1,602 at-bats that all serve as examples to the contrary, the team’s former optimism for Franco now more closely resembles wishful thinking.

Maikel Franco should not have been a starting third baseman last year, but foolish loyalty kept his name on the lineup card. Last season is over and any mismanagement is water under the bridge as the 2018 season rapidly approaches. But just because the records reset on opening day, does not mean managers do not repeat past mistakes.

The renowned Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Cicero was once remarked that “”Any man can make a mistake, but only a fool perseveres in error.” If Maikel Franco continues to get undeserved opportunities at third base, new manager Gabe Kapler would be the fool, with Franco continuing to be a mistake.

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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