Watching players throughout the season, I tend to develop prospect crushes. It started with Jesus Montero in 2009, and then continued with him in 2010. In 2011 it was Domingo Santana, who had huge five o’clock power and fit the classic right field profile. This past season, I had several reasons to plant myself behind home plate in Lakewood. Maikel Franco might have been the most fun of those reasons.
Franco probably won’t appear on many lists of top prospects this winter, but I loved what he showed me throughout his season. Early in 2012 he was a raw baseball player who was a bit overexposed in a full-season league. Later in 2012, he looked more like an impact prospect.
My first look at Lakewood came in late April. I was in town to get a few looks at the Greenville Drive, the Red Sox Low-A affiliate. I was going to see a talented trio of starting pitching prospects (Jason Garcia, Matt Barnes, and Henry Owens) along with a pair of former first-round picks in Garin Cecchini and Blake Swihart. I arrived early for batting practice and saw an athletic group of Phillies prospects spraying balls all over the field. Aaron Altherr and Brian Pointer were easy to like. Maikel Franco was even easier to like. He barreled the ball all over the field, smashing several home runs to the pull side and driving balls off the wall to the opposite field. The raw power was exciting, but my first glance at the roster excited me even more: Franco was only 19.
Throughout the series I watched Franco struggle to make contact. He swung at pitches that opposing pitchers wanted him to swing at, making weak contact in the process and failing to utilize his offensive gifts. The series left me impressed with several prospects and, despite his in-game struggles, very intrigued with Franco.
Defensively, Franco has a plus arm at third base. His actions are clean and he uses his natural instincts to his advantage. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, but he has a muscly frame and, by the time he reaches maturity, he might look like a linebacker, which could detract from his quickness at third. This is a real concern for Franco, but one scout who saw him 30 pounds and several minor league buffets ago believes in the now-20-year-old’s quickness and range at third base, noting that his additional weight hadn’t slowed him down yet.
After that series in Lakewood I kept an eye on Franco. The numbers weren’t pretty. April was bad (.235/.309/.424), May was worse (.210/.269/.320), and June was ugly (.205/.253/.330). Many 19 year olds would get frustrated, many would lose patience, and many would be demoted to a short-season league. Franco would persevere.
In mid-July I traveled again to Lakewood to see a talented Hickory Crawdads (Rangers) club take on the Blue Claws. Franco’s tools became a bit more obvious in games. He was taking more pitches and waiting for ones that he could drive. After the Hickory series ended, I decided to stick around to catch a glimpse of the Savannah Sand Gnats (Mets). On July 14, Maikel Franco gave me an experience.
In the middle of the 1st inning, a group of attractive, college-aged females took their seats, not to cheer on the Lakewood Blue Claws, but to cheer on Maikel Franco. Franco came up in the first inning and hit a routine ground ball to third base, angrily slamming his bat against the ground as he jogged down the first base line. The females persisted, chanting Franco’s name as he occupied the hot corner in the next inning. He had another chance to impress the ladies in the 3rd inning, and he made it count. The first pitch he saw was a fastball left up. Franco used his plus bat speed to murder the baseball. I’d make a joke about how the ball hasn’t landed yet, but in truth it landed almost immediately…450 feet away. The females erupted in cheers, and Franco took his time jogging the bases, taking in his miniature victory.
July and August belonged to Franco. He began to put his tools together and negated a miserable first half en route to a very respectable .280/.336/.439 line by season’s end. The Phillies wish he could start next season right now, and continue his hot streak at High-A Clearwater. 2013 will allow Franco to continue developing his skills in the pitching-heavy environment that is the Florida State League.
Overall, Franco is far from a perfect prospect. He could become an outstanding offensive player, launching 25-30 bombs per season while batting .285 with modest on-base skills. If his body allows him to stick at third base, he could become an above-average defender there. If his body takes a different direction, he may have to move across the diamond in a couple years, which would seriously diminish his value. The tools are in place, but the mystery of his body leaves his overall value in flux.
Maikel Franco probably won’t reach his ceiling. Most prospects won’t, but Franco has the tools to hit in the middle of a lineup, and that’s enough of a reason for me to plant myself behind home plate and continue to watch him try.