NEW YORK — J.P. Crawford arrived and Maikel Franco was the first to sit. That seemed right and fair when you consider the three spots where Crawford could have made his major-league debut for the Phillies on Tuesday night against the New York Mets at CitiField.
In his final 16 games at triple-A Lehigh Valley, Crawford played six games at third base and five each at second base and shortstop. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez and shortstop Freddy Galvis have done more than enough this season to deserve job security through September. The same cannot be said for Franco.
The smart money says Crawford still spends the bulk of his big-league career at shortstop, but for the near future the Phillies need to keep an open mind about what their lineup will look like in 2018.
“Watching him take ground balls at third base, you can tell he’s an athlete,” bench coach Larry Bowa said after hitting fungos at Crawford before the rookie picked up his first big-league hit in the Phillies’ 9-1 rout of the Mets. “I don’t think he’d have a problem playing anywhere.”
Crawford looked fluent at third base when he started a 5-4-3 double play that ended a New York scoring threat in the eighth inning and again on two ninth-inning chances for the final two outs of the game. He was error-free in his six games at the position with Lehigh Valley. He did not make an error in five games at second base either, but there does not seem to be any future for him there with Hernandez playing so well at the big-league level and Scott Kingery playing even better in the minor leagues this season.
“That’s upstairs,” Bowa said when asked if Crawford could be the Phillies’ third baseman of the near future. “Does he number out as a third baseman? I don’t know. It depends on the sabermetrics now. He gets a lot of walks, he gets on base.”
It is no secret the Phillies have become more reliant on sabermetrics since the baseball firm of Middleton, MacPhail and Klentak teamed up after the 2016 season. It is also no secret that no matter how you measure Franco’s season it has been a disappointment. Among the 21 big-league third basemen who have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, Franco is 19th in batting average, 20th in slugging percentage and 21st in on-base percentage and OPS.
“You have to hit better,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s still our third baseman. And I think he’s going to hit. But once again, there’s competition everywhere. Even in your own organization. People want to play in the big leagues. They’re going to try to take your job. Don’t let anybody take your job.”
Crawford was more than happy to make his debut at a position he had not played this season until two weeks ago.
“Anywhere I can help the team win, I’m all in,” Crawford said.
It will be interesting to see if the Phillies think their best lineup for 2018 puts Crawford at third base, Galvis at shortstop, and Hernandez at second base. Crawford’s 15 home runs this season at Lehigh Valley fall short of what teams usually expect from their third baseman, but Coca-Cola Park is a difficult place to hit long balls and more power is likely to come from Crawford with age. He is still only 22.
“Well, the fact that he hit 15 home runs in Lehigh Valley, which is a big ballpark, shows you he has some pop,” Mackanin said.
That Crawford is eager to play anywhere is great news for the Phillies and a challenge to Franco, who really was not being pushed by any other prospects in the organization before now. Franco, 25, understands this season has been a disappointment.
“I mean tough,” Franco said when asked for his personal assessment of 2017. “Too much back and forth. I know I want to do better, but if you’re not playing you just have to relax and try to figure out what you have to do to get better.”
Bowa does not think Franco should consider his benching punishment for a bad season.
“Mikey has tremendous potential,” Bowa said. “I don’t think there is any question about that. I don’t think it is a message to Mikey as much as it is that they want to see Crawford play. I think the organization wants to see how J.P. handles big-league pitching. The only thing I can tell guys who aren’t going to be playing is work harder. Don’t take anything for granted. Respect the game of baseball. Just be ready. You can’t feel sorry for yourself in this game.”
At some point, however, potential has to evolve into production. And regrettably for Maikel Franco, J.P. Crawford has given the Phillies something else to think about at third base.