Maikel Franco no longer has to be the man on the Philadelphia Phillies.
Expectations for Franco were high after he hit .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in 80 games as a rookie in 2015. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said the guy playing his former position had MVP potential and the team hoped the young third baseman would anchor the middle of the order for a decade.
But Franco has struggled the past two seasons. He batted only .230 with a .281 on-base percentage in 2017, though he led the team with 24 homers and 76 RBIs.
With the emergence of slugger Rhys Hoskins and other young hitters like Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams and the addition of veteran Carlos Santana, Franco won't have to carry the offense.
"Nobody has to be the guy because we have a lineup that can grind you a bit," new manager Gabe Kapler said. "You're not going to get to the bottom of the lineup without having someone who can do home-run damage."
Franco arrived to camp looking leaner and said he added muscle in the offseason. He wants to be part of the nucleus on a team that should be on the rise.
"This year is going to be fun for me. I know it," he said. "I put in a lot of work with my personal trainer, my personal hitting coach. I just want to give it everything I have for my team and no doubt about it this year will be fun."
Franco has worked with hitting coach John Mallee on a new, closed stance. He's been open to making changes and is hitting the ball with authority despite a .156 batting average with two homers (as of last week).
"It's not an indication of how he has approached his at-bats," Kapler said. "He has worked deeper counts and he has also hit a lot of balls on the barrel. We don't use this in spring training, but exit velocities, it's noticeable he's been driving the ball.
"Mallee has made some very noticeable swing changes and adjustments and those are showing up in Maikel's swing and his confidence. He's walking around believing in himself now."
Franco ripped a line-drive homer off Tampa ace Chris Archer on a 3-0 pitch in a 6-3 win Tuesday. He recently had an opposite-field single off the wall in right field that also impressed Kapler.
"I'm just trying to learn every day and I feel confident and I feel comfortable," Franco said.
Franco has sought advice from Santana, who has a locker next to him. Santana has preached patience at the plate. Franco has only 108 career walks in 402 games and needs to be more selective.
"Be patient, pick the right pitch to hit," Santana said.
This could be a make-or-break season for Franco. If Franco starts slow, top prospect Scott Kingery could take his job. Kingery, a natural second baseman, is getting work at third base and has been impressive at the plate this spring. The Phillies could make a strong push for Orioles star Manny Machado after the season. Machado is entering the final year of his contract and Phillies president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak were in Baltimore when the Orioles selected him with the No. 3 pick in the 2009 amateur draft.
For now, it's Franco's job.
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