Phillies still have high hopes for Maikel Franco

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Gabe Kapler flew to the Dominican Republic last month for a tour of the Phillies academy near the island’s southeastern coastline. Before heading home, Kapler watched Maikel Franco take batting practice and the Phillies manager boarded his flight with a better understanding of why the team continues to believe in perhaps its most perplexing player.

“I think there’s a ton of room for growth both on defense and with the bat, and I think that’s something that he would share as well,” Kapler said. “He’s a very dynamic player with a tremendous ceiling, and he’s in the process of working towards tapping his potential.”

The process of tapping into that potential, general manager Matt Klentak said, begins with Franco’s ability to hit the ball into the air. Kapler, who was accompanied by the club’s special assistant to the general manager, Jorge Velandia, stressed that to Franco after watching him in the Dominican.

An emphasis has been placed across baseball over the last few seasons on keeping the ball in the air and increasing launch angles and exit velocity. Certain players — such as Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner — have sparked their careers by doing so. Perhaps Franco, who has batted just .242 with a .712 OPS over the last two seasons, could be next.

Franco hits the ball hard — he ranked 25th last season in average exit velocity (88.8 mph) among hitters with at least 440 at-bats — but too often the third baseman’s contact resulted in ground balls. Franco’s ground ball rate (45.4 percent) was the 46th highest in baseball. His launch angle — 11.5 degrees — almost equaled last season’s league average and ranked 52nd of the 94 hitters who registered 400 at-bats. Good things could come, the Phillies believe, if he matches that exit velocity with a better launch angle.

“In a perfect world, Maikel would hit the ball in the air more,” Klentak said. “You can measure this pretty easily. He hits the ball hard. And he makes frequent contact. He’s not a huge swing-and-miss guy, he’s not a huge strikeout guy. He doesn’t run very well. So balls on the ground are typically outs. But when he lifts the ball in the air, he can do a lot of damage. That’s going to be a focus for him. And he knows it. He’s working on it now. He’s spending a lot of time at our academy, working with our hitting guys down there. It’s a goal for him. He’s embracing it. If he can do that, we think he can have a really good year.”

Franco’s ability to adapt could be what keeps him in the organization. The Phillies may not be trading this winter for Manny Machado, but they will make a push for the third baseman next offseason if Machado enters free agency. Franco’s success — perhaps a spike in homers thanks to an emphasis on keeping the ball in the air — could change their outlook and allow the front office to focus assets elsewhere. Next year’s free agent class will be loaded and the Phillies will be players. The next nine months could determine where the 25-yer-old Franco stands.

“I’ve been the high guy on Franco for the last two years. Even in the times where he’s struggled, I’ve been pretty bullish on his future. That’s because I believe in him,” Klentak said. “He has the work ethic. He has fun when he’s playing. His teammates like him. He has power. He controls the strike zone very well for a power hitter. He has good hands. He has a rocket for a right arm. To me, there’s no reason that that package of tools should not lead to him being a well above average player. And it’s our job as an organization to help him in any way that we possibly can to achieve his potential. That’s going to be a huge priority for us this year.”