PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - When Gabe Kapler declared last week that there was a competition at third base, it felt more like a way to motivate Maikel Franco than the beginning of any type of spring-training battle.
It was hard to imagine the Phillies using Scott Kingery as their everyday third baseman after saying all winter that they wanted to use him in multiple positions like they did last season. It was also hard to imagine Franco, who is nearly exclusively limited to playing third base, coming off the bench.
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If it was a ploy, early returns are favorable. Franco reported to spring training much slimmer than last season. He seemed refreshed during the team’s early workouts, he added a leg kick to his swing and drew positive reviews for his work on the back fields of the Carpenter Complex.
And then Franco made an opening statement with a home run on Friday as the Phillies began Grapefruit League play with a 3-2 win over the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.
“I know there’s always going to be competition,” Franco said. “When you come into camp, there’s always going to be competition. But I don’t try to think about it that way. I just try to come in every single day and do everything I can do get better and stay positive. Don’t try to think about it. Just do my job.”
The biggest challenge to Franco at third base was Manny Machado and Franco admitted earlier this week that he felt relief when Machado signed with the Padres. Besides Machado, the Phillies stayed out of the market this winter for third baseman. They weren’t interested in Mike Moustakas, who returned earlier this week to Milwaukee. And they stayed away from infielder Marwin Gonzalez, who signed Friday with the Twins.
The Phillies understand that Franco may not be the player he was projected to be, but he is still just 26 years old. Their reliance on him lessened this offseason when they added three new faces to their lineup. And a fourth face - Bryce Harper - could be on the way. The pressure was lifted off Franco. Perhaps all he needed was some motivation.
“I feel great, man,” Franco said.
Friday was the debut of Major League Baseball’s pitch clocks, which have been used in the minor leagues since 2015 and could be used in the majors this regular season as a way to improve the pace of play. The clocks, positioned behind the back stop and behind the centerfield wall, give the pitcher 20 seconds to throw a pitch.
“For me, I’m used to releasing a pitch every 12 to 13 seconds,” said Cole Irvin, who started for the Phillies and has worked with a pitch clock since reaching double A in 2017. “That’s kind of where my time frame is. I work quick. Even if the time clock wasn’t there, I’d still probably pitch that quick.”
The rule requires that the batter step into the batter’s box with at least five seconds remaining on the timer or the umpire will reward a strike. The pitcher must then begin his delivery before the timer hits zero or the umpire will reward a ball. The penalties will not be assessed until later in spring training to give the players and umpires time to be accustomed.
“What we realized was that we had a lot of minor-league pitchers in the game today and all of them have been around it quite a bit,”Kapler said. “They were like ‘Yeah, duh. There’s a pitch clock here today. That’s kind of normal for us.’”