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Franco Is Coming

Maikel FrancoThe Phillies’ third baseman of the future is on his way.

The Phillies announced this morning they have recalled Maikel Franco from Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco is the No. 54 prospect in baseball, according to MLBPipeline.com. He is expected to be at third base tonight for the Phillies’ series opener against Arizona at Citizens Bank Park.

Franco’s arrival became imminent Monday, when the Phillies optioned third baseman Cody Asche to Triple-A, where is learning to become a left fielder.

Franco, 22, hit .355 (50-for-141) with 12 doubles, one triple, four home runs, 24 RBIs and a .923 OPS in 33 games with the IronPigs.

He has played well, but he also needed to spend 40 days in the Minor Leagues this season to avoid becoming eligible for free agency following the 2020 season. The 40th day was yesterday. By calling up Franco today, he can become a free agent following the 2021 season.

That was an important consideration for a rebuilding team.

“This was a baseball decision based on Maikel’s development and performance,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a statement. “We believe he is ready for the next step.”

The Phillies will make a corresponding roster move before tonight’s game. They currently have one extra relief pitcher on the roster.

First of Many Changes: Asche Moves to Left Field

Cody AscheThe Phillies are building for the future and they made their first significant in-season change last night when they optioned Cody Asche to Triple-A.

They want Asche to become a left fielder.

The organization believes Maikel Franco is its third baseman of the future. He is coming as early as Friday. He is hitting well in Triple-A. He plays an impressive third base. If he can play like that in the big leagues then he is the right choice. But the Phillies still like Asche and they see their outfield is lacking. (Phillies outfielders have a .623 OPS this season, which is 29th in baseball.) They think Asche’s offense could improve if he moves to a less stressful spot on the field like left.

“That’s a possibility,” Ryne Sandberg said. “I’ve seen that before and I think he has the ability to play a solid left field with the things he’s already done, with his foot speed and knowledge of the game and what I’ve seen in practice. He also has a good arm.”

Asche took the news hard. I’m sure he did not expect to return to the Minor Leagues to learn a new position. (One hopes they told him this was coming a couple weeks ago, but based on his reaction I think they did not.) But his ego also probably took a hit because the Phillies essentially told him, “We don’t think you’re good enough at third base.” That hurt is understandable. But like I wrote in the story above, there are numerous players that have made the transition from infielder to outfielder.

Craig Biggio, Robin Yount, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Alex Gordon are just a few.

Nobody looks at those players as having failed anything. If Asche takes to left field and his offense improves and he establishes himself as a quality left fielder, nobody will look at him as a failed third baseman. They will look at him as a significant piece of the rebuilding process.

So what’s next for the Phillies? Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Aaron Harang, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz remain on the trading block. Aaron Nola? He’ll continue to pitch in Double-A, but he could be in the big leagues before the end of the season. Ben Revere is expected to move to right field, although I don’t think the Phillies look at him as the long-term answer there. Revere could share time in right with Jeff Francoeur and Domonic Brown, once he rejoins the Phillies. Or the Phillies could trade Revere or Brown.

“We’ve been in dialogue about a lot of things,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “That really hasn’t stopped since the offseason. We still continue to kind of assess opportunities that we might have. The focus remains the same: we try to put ourselves in a position to improve the club and give young players an opportunity to come up here and see what they can do.”

Utley Heads to Bench

lineup 2015Ryne Sandberg issued an interesting lineup for tonight’s game against the Braves.

First, Chase Utley is on the bench. He is hitting .103 this season and .215 with a .610 OPS in 555 plate appearances since May 29, 2014. Let’s see what Sandberg says in the dugout, but if I’m the manager I tell Utley to take a seat tonight and tomorrow night. There is an off day Thursday, so Utley could have three consecutive days to relax and clear his head. Jeff Francoeur said a weekend off benefited him Monday, when he went 4-for-5.

An extended rest has benefited other struggling hitters in the past. It might help. It might not. But it’s something to at least try.

Second, Ben Revere is playing right field for the first time since 2012, when he played 84 games there with the Twins. I think this is a precursor to Maikel Franco‘s promotion from Triple-A, which could happen as early as May 15. Whenever Franco is promoted the Phillies will want him to play regularly. That means plenty of time at third base, which means Cody Asche moving to left field.

What A Month

Chase UtleyChase Utley put his month of April into perspective Thursday in St. Louis, but what an April overall for the Phillies’ offense.

Consider:

  • They were 29th in batting average (.223), 29th in on-base percentage (.280), 29th in slugging percentage (.330) and 30th in OPS (.609).
  • They were 30th in runs per game (2.74). It was the fourth-worst showing by an offense since 2004. Only the 2012 Pirates (2.64), 2014 Padres (2.66) and 2013 Marlins (2.70) fared worse. The Phillies scored three runs last night to boost their season average to 2.75. If they maintain that pace — I’ve got to think they won’t — it would be the seventh-lowest scoring average in baseball since 1884.
  • A big problem is a lack of production in the middle of the lineup. Maybe Utley’s three-run home run last night gets him going a little bit. The Phillies’ No. 3 hitters are 29th in baseball with a .582 OPS. Their No. 4 hitters are 30th at .413 and their No. 5 hitters are 28th at .560. They are only in the top half at one spot: No. 2, a spot held mostly by Freddy Galvis (nine games) and Odubel Herrera (nine games).

How Is the Small Ball Going?

Ben Revere, Yadier MolinaThe Phillies keep bunting, but how is it going so far?

It did not work in the fifth inning last night in a 5-2 loss to the Cardinals. The Phillies had runners on first and second with no outs in a tie game when Ryne Sandberg called for Ben Revere to bunt. Revere bunted the ball in front of the plate and Yadier Molina threw out the lead runner at third for the first out.

“Why do I like it?” Sandberg said about the decision to bunt there. “First and second and no outs with a bunter up there.”

It was the fourth time this month the Phillies have bunted with runners on first and second and had the lead runner thrown out at third. It happened three times with no outs and once with one out.

The Phillies lead Major League Baseball with 12 sacrifice bunts. But as I wrote earlier this month, the numbers show bunting is counterproductive to scoring. Teams averaged 1.4023 runs with runners on first and second and no outs last season. They averaged 1.2714 runs with runners on second and third and one out.

The Phillies had a 9.3 percent better chance to score with Revere swinging away in the fifth inning. It might not seem like much, but for a team last in baseball averaging 2.73 runs per game every percentage point counts. And why play for the small inning there with five innings to go? It would have made more sense bunting in that situation if it were the eighth or ninth inning.

Let’s look closer at the Phillies’ bunt attempts this month:

According to MLB’s play-by-play, Phillies pitchers have bunted a ball in play 10 times. (This does not account for striking out on bunt attempts, balls bunted foul, etc.) They have successfully sacrificed eight times. The Phillies have scored seven runs in four of the innings their pitchers have sacrificed. That seems pretty good to me, but then I have no problem with pitchers bunting. Pitchers are bad hitters so having them bunt is almost always the right play.

The Phillies have had their hitters bunt the ball in play 10 times with at least one runner on base. (They have bunted for hits three times without a runner on base. They are 0-for-3.) Twice it seems the hitter has bunted on his own, but the other eight times have been called from the dugout. Phillies hitters successfully sacrificed just four times. The Phillies scored just three runs in those innings, which is not a good ratio.

Does bunting avoid the chance of somebody hitting into a double play? Yes, but it also hurts the team’s chances of a big inning because they have one less out to work with.

Hitters bunting with at least one runner on base:

  • Freddy Galvis (April 11): Runners on 1st and 2nd, 0 outs, 3rd inning. Force out at third base. 0 runs scored.
  • Revere (April 11): Runners on 1st and 2nd, 0 outs, 5th inning. Force out at third base. 0 runs scored.
  • Galvis (April 14): Runner on third, 1 out, 5th inning. Popped out on failed safety squeeze. 0 runs scored.
  • Chase Utley (April 15): Runners on 1st and 2nd, 1 out, 5th inning. Grounds out (not a sac attempt). 0 runs scored.
  • Cody Asche (April 24): Runners on 1st and 3rd, 1 out, 8th inning. Popped out. 0 runs scored.
  • Cesar Hernandez (April 24): Runner on 1st, 0 outs. Sacrifice bunt. 1 run scored.
  • Andres Blanco (April 26): Runner on 1st, 0 outs. Sacrifice bunt. 1 run scored.
  • Galvis (April 27): Runner on 2nd, 0 outs. Sacrifice bunt. 0 runs scored.
  • Odubel Herrera (April 28): Runners on 1st, 0 outs. Sacrifice bunt. 0 runs scored.
  • Revere (April 29): Runners on 1st and 2nd, 0 outs. Force out at third base. 1 run scored.

Preparing for Franco: Asche Works In Left Field

Cody AscheThe Phillies made a small, but significant move yesterday when Cody Asche spent part of batting practice at Busch Stadium catching fly balls in left field.

Asche could be headed there in the future, especially once the Phillies promote Triple-A Lehigh Valley third baseman Maikel Franco, who is hitting .333 (28-for-84) with 10 doubles, one triple, one home run, 11 RBIs and an .883 OPS in 19 games.

Franco’s promotion is not imminent, but it nearly is inevitable. If the Phillies promote Franco before May 15 he could become a free agent in 2020 rather than 2021, so it would be surprising to see him in Phillies pinstripes any earlier. The Phillies also might avoid Franco earning Super 2 salary arbitration status if he is promoted after the first week of July.

But whether it is next month or closer to the All-Star break or some other time, Franco is coming if he keeps hitting.

“At some point we need to make sure that Cody is prepared,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said this afternoon. “It’s no secret that Maikel is doing very well down there. We want to try to create as much versatility with our guys as we possibly can.”

Asche worked a little in left field in Spring Training but the Phillies ultimately pulled the plug because they wanted him to prepare to be the team’s everyday third baseman. But when Franco joins the team Amaro wants him playing nearly every day. Franco can play first base, but he is regarded as a finer defensive third baseman than Asche, which is why they are seeing what else Asche can do.

“He’s primarily a third baseman,” Amaro said about Franco. “That’s his best position. That’s where I think his future lies. But his future could also lie at first. Again, it’s about creating as much versatility as you possibly can, particularly with our young guys and particularly with our younger guys who can swing the bat. We’re looking for people who are going to help us offensively. The whole point is getting as many of those guys as we can on the field.”

Asche has not played in the outfield since he became a professional, so throwing him out there midseason could be a challenge. But it has happened before. The Phillies moved Placido Polanco to the outfield in 2005 after spending his entire career in the infield. They did the same in 2013 with infielder Freddy Galvis.

“He’s a pretty good athlete,” Amaro said about Asche. “If it’s something we choose to do we would have to feel comfortable. Will he be a Gold Glover if he gets a chance to go out there? No. But we’ll have to decide if he’s athletic enough to do that. We think he is.”

Franco’s arrival and Asche’s potential move to left involves other players, too.

For instance, what does this mean for left fielder Ben Revere and first baseman Ryan Howard?

Amaro said Revere can play center field and right field, if needed. Odubel Herrea could be a candidate to move to right, although Amaro said Herrera seems much more comfortable in center. And the Big Piece?

“Howard is our first baseman,” Amaro said.

Amaro said Asche is not a candidate to move to second base, despite playing 64 games there for Class A Williamsport in 2011.

“Playing second base is very difficult for someone who has not played on the right side of the field,” Amaro said. “He did it briefly, but the pivot and the process of learning that is very difficult and a lot more difficult than people think. Middle infielders are more born. They’re not developed, necessarily.”

Asche will start at third base Wednesday night against the Cardinals. That should surprise nobody. It might be some time before Franco is promoted, plus Asche needs more time to learn left field.

The Phillies also need time to figure out how the rest of the dominoes might fall.

Say What? Brown Optioned to Triple-A

Domonic BrownDomonic Brown probably had a few reasons to assume he would rejoin the Phillies tomorrow.

But instead the Phillies announced today that he has been optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley after finishing his 20-day rehab assignment. It is a significant decision, considering Brown is a former National League All-Star making $2.5 million this season. If the Phillies have optioned a player in the past making that type of money it has not happened in recent memory. (The Phillies optioned Brett Myers in July 2008, but because he had five years of service time he could have rejected it.)

“Clearly, as one can imagine, if you were in the same shoes you wouldn’t be happy, either,” said Ruben Amaro Jr., who spoke with Brown directly. “I mean, I don’t blame him for not being happy. And I don’t know that he necessarily agrees with the decision, but it is our decision to make. And I do think we’re doing it in the best interest of Domonic Brown and the Phillies.”

Brown opened the season on the 15-day disabled list because of tendinitis in his left Achilles. He hit .294 (5-for-17) with one double, one home run, three RBIs and a .929 OPS in six games on a rehab assignment with Class A Clearwater. But in nine games with Lehigh Valley, he hit .139 (5-for-36) with one double, three RBIs and a .405 OPS.

Brown told Lehigh Valley reporters Sunday he would be in St. Louis on Wednesday. But Ryne Sandberg said yesterday at Busch Stadium that “from what I’ve seen I don’t know that he’s ready for Major League pitching or to come up and really give us a punch, the way that things have gone for him there.”

That is saying something because the Phillies are desperate for offense. They enter Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals averaging 2.65 runs per game, which is the lowest average in baseball this season and the fifth-lowest average in baseball since 1900.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore and Jeff Francoeur have been sharing right field while Brown has been out. Sizemore, who hits left-handed like Brown, is hitting .133 (4-for-30) with one double, one RBI and a .328 OPS. Francoeur, who hits right-handed, is hitting .200 (11-for-55) with three doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and a .630 OPS.

“We’re not trying to hold anybody back if they’re able to help us,” Amaro said.

Brown, 27, certainly has plenty to prove this season. He hit just .235 with 22 doubles, one triple, 10 home runs, 63 RBIs and a .634 OPS in 144 games last season. His OPS ranked 139th out of 147 qualified hitters in baseball. His .640 OPS as an outfielder ranked 60th out of 64 outfielders, and his .641 OPS as a left fielder was the lowest of any left fielder since Chuck Knoblauch‘s .582 OPS for Kansas City in 2002.

“The bottom line is we think he’s a very talented player and needs to play a little better and at a higher level to be back here playing at the Major League level,” Amaro said. “He’s getting closer. I talked to Charlie (Manuel) today. He’s getting closer to having that rhythm. He hasn’t gotten there yet. We don’t think he’s very far away, but he’s got some things to work on to be a more consistent performer.

“It’s a performance-based industry and we know Domonic has the ability to do things at a very, very high level at the Major League level. We’re working to try to get him back there as soon as possible. At this stage of the game we don’t feel he’s ready to do that consistently. When he is and when he does he’ll be back.”

Is It Just Bad Luck for Utley?

Ryne Sandberg, Chase UtleyChase Utley continues to hit third for the Phillies, despite the fact he entered tonight’s series opener against the Cardinals hitting .121.

Utley’s April batting average is the third-lowest in Phillies history among hitters with 40 or more plate appearances. Bill Kelly hit .119 in April 1928. Roy Sievers hit .114 in April 1962.

“He’s just a series or two away from getting hot and getting to where he wants to be,” Ryne Sandberg said.

Utley has been hitting the ball hard throughout the month, but he has had little to show for it. Some of it is bad luck. He has a .104 batting average on balls in play, which is the second-lowest BABIP in baseball. The average Major League player this season has a .290 BABIP. As FanGraphs explains: “For hitters, we use BABIP as a sanity test of sorts that tells us if their overall batting line is sustainable or not. Virtually no hitter is capable of producing a BABIP of .380 or higher on a regular basis and anything in the .230 range is also very atypical for a major league hitter. In other words, BABIP allows us to see if a hitter seems to be getting a boost from poor defense or good luck or getting docked for facing good defenses and having bad luck.”

“There’s something to that,” Sandberg said. “He’s stung the ball.”

Utley has a career .302 BABIP, including a .295 mark last season and a .305 mark in 2013. So expect Utley’s numers to improve at some point. When? That’s an entirely different question.

Brown Might Not Be Back Wednesday

Domonic BrownDomonic Brown told reporters yesterday he would rejoin the Phillies on Wednesday.

Not so fast.

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said today at Busch Stadium that while there has been no official conversations about Brown’s status, “from what I’ve seen I don’t know that he’s ready for Major League pitching or to come up and really give us a punch the way that things have gone for him there.”

Brown has been on the 15-day disabled list since the season started because of tendinitis in his left Achilles. He has been on a rehab assignment since April 9. Once a position player begins a rehab assignment he has 20 days to be activated from the DL. His 20th day is Tuesday, which means a decision must be made by Wednesday.

Brown might have assumed he would be activated and join the Phillies. But the Phillies could activate him and option him to Triple-A.

He has hit .129 (4-for-31) with one double, two RBIs, four walks and six strikeouts in eight games with the IronPigs.

“Maybe it’s just not enough at-bats,” Sandberg said about Brown’s struggles in the Minor Leagues. “He’s had some fly ball outs. He just hasn’t connected and hasn’t hit for average, which you’d like to see.”

Asked if he would prefer Brown did not tell people he would be back before a decision had been made, Sandberg said, “Unless he’s player-GM.”

Relax: Let Phillies Prospects Move Slowly

Maikel FrancoI wrote Friday that the Phillies are in no rush to promote Maikel Franco to the big leagues, despite a hot start in Triple-A.

I explained the organization’s rationale in the story, but because fans have such little faith in the Phillies’ front office these days I received plenty of negative reaction to it.

Sure, keep playing the same old guys!

Of course they’re not. The Phillies never promote anybody!

I just don’t understand why they don’t bring up every prospect to learn on the job!

Oh, brother. I could not disagree more. Let me be clear: the Phillies’ front office deserves plenty of criticism for the current state of the team. The Phillies have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, but one of the worst teams. There is no excusing that. So criticize their amateur drafts. Question their player development. Criticize their talent evaluation at the amateur and professional levels. Question their unmovable contracts and personnel decisions. Criticize the coaching staff.

Each of those things is fair.

But if the Phillies are going to do something right this season it is going to be remaining patient with their prospects. They should not rush them to the big leagues because fans are frustrated with the product at Citizens Bank Park.

Here is why:

  1. This is a lost season. Do not forget Pat Gillick‘s assessment that the Phillies are not going to compete again until 2017 at the earliest. Despite winning two of three this weekend against the Braves, the Phillies are on pace to lose more than 100 games. 2016 might not be much better. So in what world does it make sense to start rushing prospects through the system so they can join a team headed nowhere? If you’re a Phillies fan you should want the Phillies’ prospects to take their time through the Minor League system and be promoted when they are truly ready. Every week or month they remain in the Minor Leagues is another week, month or year they could be helping the team win when it matters again. Think about it: if the Phillies had rushed Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels through the system, maybe they’re not all together during their run from 2007-11.
  2. Service time. In the case of Franco, if he is promoted before May 15 he could become eligible for free agency following the 2020 season. If he is promoted May 15 or later, he does not become eligible until after 2021. Yes, if the Phillies wait just a few weeks they could have Franco for an entire extra season — a season when the results might matter again. Now I am not saying Franco will be promoted later next month or even that he should be promoted later next month. (If the Phillies promote him after the fist week of July they could avoid his Super 2 status in salary arbitration.) I’m only saying I cannot find a single reason to promote Franco right now. To be clear: I’m not advocating the stashing of prospects in the system when they are beyond ready for a big-league promotion. I’m only saying the Phillies must be smart about it. A few extra weeks in Triple-A is not going to kill anybody.
  3. Development. I hear people say the Phillies don’t promote their prospects when they are young. They offer Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton as examples of young players promoted that enjoyed immediate success in the big leagues. Of course, find me a Phillies prospect since Utley or Howard that could come close to the talent of Trout, Harper, Cabrera or Stanton. That player hasn’t existed. But while I have heard of prospects being hurt by being rushed to the big leagues, I have not heard of prospects being irreparably harmed by not being promoted to the big leagues quickly enough. Utley and Howard were not rushed. They turned out fine. If a player is going be successful at the big-league level, an extra month or two (or more) in the Minor Leagues is not going to stop that. So when I asked Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper yesterday if the Phillies considered any of the organization’s Double-A pitching prospects to make Tuesday’s start in St. Louis over Severino Gonzalez and he said no, I had no problem with that. That extra time in the Minor Leagues might allow one of those pitchers to learn a new pitch or fine tune the ones they have. It might allow them to learn how to overcome their struggles, so when they experience them in the future they have confidence they can overcome them again. Kyle Kendrick got rushed to the big leagues in 2007. He could only throw a sinker. He had success early, but eventually hitters caught up and he had to return to the Minor Leagues before he could pitch in the big leagues again. Knowing the team is not going anywhere this season, wouldn’t it make sense for those prospects to continue to develop at a steady pace so they’re really ready when the time comes?

So while I understand the desire to watch the future this season rather than the past, think about what that might mean. If you want the Phillies to return to glory sooner rather than later it might mean sucking it up in 2015. Will we see Franco this season? I’m sure we will. Will we see Nola? It’s possible. Should they get called up ASAP? Absolutely not. They should be promoted when they are ready to experience success in the big leagues and no earlier. Because right now does not matter. 2017 and beyond does.

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