Phillies Will Have Maikel Franco Split Time Between Third and First Base
Per CSN Philly’s Corey Seidman, the Phillies plan to have top prospect Maikel Franco split time between third and first base in 2014 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Initial reports indicated that Franco would primarily play first base, but GM Ruben Amaro clarified:
“Its not the case, he’s not gonna be primarily first base,” Amaro said. “He’s a third baseman, he may get some work at first base, but he’s primarily a third baseman.”
Three players are directly impacted by the news:
Ruf has been nothing short of fantastic in his 330 Major League plate appearances between 2012-13, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt he can sustain it. Moving Franco to first base, at least part-time, shows that the organization doesn’t view Ruf as a useful player at first base. Since he is even worse in the outfield, it essentially means the Phillies don’t value Ruf very highly at all. As I pointed out last month, Ruf still has some pretty big holes in his game.
ZiPS projects Asche to post a meager .299 wOBA and 1.1 Wins Above Replacement, which is right between average and replacement level. While he won’t have to worry about losing his job at third base to start the season, the organization putting even more eggs in the Franco basket should make Asche feel a little more uneasy about his job security. This is especially true considering Amaro made it a point to clarify that they view Franco primarily as a third baseman.
Having Franco seriously attempt to learn first base shows that the Phillies aren’t so sure about what Howard can contribute between now and the end of his contract. Howard played in 71 games in 2012 recovering from his Achillies injury and he played in just 80 last season due to a torn meniscus in his knee. His respective .718 and .784 OPS in those two seasons were both career-lows and the peripherals weren’t any better — strikeout rates of 34 and 30 percent (the former a career-high) and isolated powers of .204 and .199, both career-lows. Obviously, with limited range and mobility, Howard’s defense at first base is less reliable than ever.
The Phillies still owe Howard $85 million — $25 million over each of the next three seasons plus a $10 million buy-out for 2017. They’ll be hard-pressed to find a taker for Howard unless they’re willing to eat nearly all of his remaining salary, and they are no doubt aware of this fact. Giving Franco time at first base could mean they would like to eventually platoon him with Howard to ease him into the Majors, or it could mean that they see Franco eventually usurping Howard’s job at first base if his defense at third base doesn’t improve. As Paul Boye said on Twitter, 2014 will be the most important year of Howard’s career.
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The ideal is for Franco to eventually replace Asche at third base. But, as mentioned, Franco’s defense remains a concern. Eric Longenhagen is a believer in his defensive capabilities, but he ranks among the more optimistic in that regard. If Franco doesn’t make any progress defensively, the Phillies could consider capitalizing on Franco’s value in a trade before it plummets.
Franco would have to consistently hit better at first base compared to third base. The average National League third baseman last year posted a .311 wOBA compared to .328 for first basemen. The 17-point difference translates to roughly ten runs or one win. Then factor in that first base nullifies his biggest defensive asset — his arm — and his value might be cut by more than 1 WAR.
Obviously, we’ll have to wait until the summer to get a sense of how Franco’s future is likely to pan out. Franco diversifying his portfolio, so to speak, is not necessarily a bad thing. But the news does shed some light on where the organization values some key players and gives us an idea as to their confidence in Franco going forward.