Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports
Not everything is all bad in Philadelphia these days. Sure, the massive, continuous intake of players in their 30-something’s is hard to digest but some positive indicators do loom. The Philadelphia Phillies have harvested several key components that will decide their fate in not just the near but long term as well.
Maikel Franco is the most prominent of the components we are speaking of. Regardless if it’s first or third base, his presence in the Phillies lineup will matter sooner rather than later. With Ryan Howard still in tow, however, Franco’s more immediate future lies at the hot corner.
To suggest Franco could begin the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley is laughable. Cody Asche is the front-runner to win the starting third base gig for Opening Day. While the Phillies could do much worse than Asche (see Placido Polanco, circa 2012), why would they place Franco in the minors where he has virtually nothing to prove?
Where the Phillies are coming from is understandable. After all, Franco has yet to reach Triple-A. After mashing advanced Single-A and Double-A pitching to the tune of 31 home run’s, 103 runs batted in and a batting average of .319 in 2013, many would assume he would bide his time with the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs until needed. Unfortunately, this may do no good for Franco or the Phillies. Franco is needed with the Phillies now.
As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs points out, the Phillies are expected to be the second-most improved team in Major League Baseball this season. As enticing as that sounds, they still aren’t pegged to crack the postseason. Sullivan calls it “a positive regression case.” What he means is this: The Phillies have enough talent on their projected Opening Day roster to linger around the pennant race much further into the season than last year. At the end of the day, however, the Phillies are pretenders, not contenders.
The backbone of Sullivan’s analysis is based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR). As Fansided’s Mike Lacy reveals:
"Sullivan simply takes the team’s composite WAR from 2013 and compares it to Fangraph’s projected WAR for 2014. According to their projections, the Phillies are expected to be 12 WAR better."
Simple enough, right? Not really. WAR cannot compensate for lost MLB service time should a team make the wrong personnel decision regarding a position battle. As good of an analytical measurement WAR is, like anything else, it has its shortcomings as well.
For instance, if the Phillies error and open the season with Asche, not Franco, as the starting third baseman, the projected WAR Sullivan used for his team projections remains constant. However, Sullivan’s analysis and measurement via WAR could be flawed. How so? It doesn’t necessarily tell us how much better, or worse for that matter, the Phillies would be if Franco opens the season as the starting third baseman instead of Asche.
The expectation of Franco beginning the year in Triple-A is throwing a wrench into projecting how much better the Phillies actually might be in 2014.
Asche’s 2013 production left much to be desired. In just 179 plate appearances, Asche struck out 24 percent of the time. He hit .239 while slugging five HR. His Fly Ball Percentage (FB%) was a little more than eight points less than his Ground Ball Percentage (GB%). Therefore, the pop from his five dingers in less than 200 AB could be more of an aberration than anything.
In a weak Phillies farm system, Franco stands out as the lone prospect ready to make an immediate impact on the MLB level. Skipping Triple-A figures to be an odd task since many expect players to take their turn at each level of the minor league system. For some players, it just doesn’t matter. Just ask Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez.
Franco has legitimate power that could placate the diminishing might of the Phillies lineup. Less fly balls clear the fence after being sprung off the bats of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. Even with slight regression, Franco has the bat speed and wherewithal to hit for a better average than most of the Phillies lineup. His defense isn’t bad either.
Defensively, Asche wasn’t very good last season after getting the call to the big show. He posted a -7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). In addition to that, he posted an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -4.0. For comparison’s sake, Asche ranks right along with San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval in DRS. His UZR was 35.2 points worse than the best at third base, Baltimore’s Manny Machado.
So far, Franco has impressed skipper Ryne Sandberg with is play at third base. According to Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com, Franco “has caught some eyes with his glove, arm and bat.” With a strong arm, good glove and decent range in the field, Franco should have the leg up on Asche.
And this is no knock on Asche. Competition fuels the drive to weed out the inferior players. If Franco is displaying everything necessary, and then some, why would the Phillies settle for less to open the season? All Franco has to prove by settling in at Triple-A is that he is not as talented as Asche, when clearly he is.
This situation is reminiscent of how the Phillies mismanaged Domonic Brown’s early years. The one-time top prospect was bounced around, back-and-forth, from the minors and majors to the point of discouragement. Lacking the courage to commit to Brown, the Phillies delayed an emergence of talent that Brown possesses. For three seasons, Brown wasted away his skills. In 2013, when the Phillies finally committed to naming Brown an everyday starter, Brown broke out with 27 HR, 83 RBI and a .272 AVG. He was also named an to his first MLB All-Star Game.
Let’s just hope the Phillies don’t mismanage Franco like they did Brown. If they do, the seemingly tumultuous future could become apocalyptic. Sure, the possibility exists that Franco could be a bust in the majors. All indicators suggest otherwise though. Organizations don’t thrive off of thinking their players will be busts when they haven’t even been presented with an opportunity.
The Phillies need Franco more than they need Asche. With a severely veteran club, Franco could be the glue in the lineup to help the Phillies surge to a higher rate of offense in 2014. With higher offensive output, the Phillies might surpass Sullivan’s WAR projections and inch even closer to a playoff berth as well.
Asche’s potential doesn’t parallel that of Franco’s, so give Franco the nod.