In his obstacle-filled path to the majors, reliever Dellin Betances spent a lot of time with Tony Franklin.
Betances was under the watch of the longtime Trenton Thunder manager at different times between 2010-2012.
Many times, even when Betances no longer played for the Thunder, the righty’s name came up. When he pitched for Trenton, he was a mix of the electric powerhouse the Yankees hoped for, and the unfocused, suddenly lost guy that they feared would emerge.
"There was a night he pitched for us that he looked like he should be in the big leagues that day," Franklin once remarked. That was during the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre period, when Betances was struggling hard to throw strikes, while his walk rate soared. But we still talked about him. Franklin had a way of communicating about Betances issues, and any other player’s, in a way that suggested his approach in talking directly to players: firm, patient, open, straightforward.
Betances is on a long list of players that Franklin managed before they headed to the big leagues, among them Phil Coke (now Detroit Tigers), Austin Romine, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes (now with the Minnesota Twins), and Hector Noesi (now Mariners).
This year, with his 1,190th win, Franklin became the league’s all-time winningest manager. After eight years, three EL championships, two division titles, and a Manager of the Year honor in 2012, the question remains whether Franklin, 64, will get his shot either at the Triple-A level, or in the big leagues. But the question that’s emerged the last couple of years is, whether he’ll retire before that ever happens.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, Franklin told The Trentonian that this is the first year, after dealing with serious health issues in seasons past, that he’s felt sure he wanted to return, saying, "I’d love to come back."
It’s been an interesting few years for Franklin, and the Yankees, in terms of prospect development. The team traded former Thunder catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners, deleting a top hitting prospect from their deep catching prospect pool. Montero has turned into a project (you could argue he always was), proving that move a smart one. There was a time in Trenton when ‘The Three B’s’ dominated on the mound: Andrew Brackman (now White Sox), Manny Banuelos, and Betances. Banuelos spent 2014 with the Thunder after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and
Betances has now emerged as one of the top relievers in the big leagues. He set the Yankees single-season record for relievers in strikeouts earlier this week, notching his 131st and 132nd in an appearance against the Tampa Bay Rays. To put that into full perspective, that means he leads former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera by one.
There’s always debate about the impact of a manager, whether his power is simply to strategize, or whether he’s a ‘Player’s Manager’. But at the minor league level, that role is far more crucial. There are managers that never quite seem to appreciate the value of their role at that level. Some don’t know how to communicate with young players. Perhaps they forget. Then again, things have changed in the power structure through the years. In a conversation with John Kruk a few years ago, he talked about how his hands were tied when he briefly managed the then Reading Phillies, also of the Eastern League. He was stunned by the differences the manager-player relationship had undergone at the minor league level, since he’d played.
That leadership, however, is something that Franklin has always taken very seriously. He sees himself as he should: an extension of the big club (he’s called it the ‘Yankees way’), but also respects his own role, independent of that, in the position of handling various delicate situations. At that level, there are issues of professionalism, conduct, and direction that require the firm, patient, and intelligent approach that have been the hallmark of Franklin’s tenure. For the team that receives the most attention in all of sports, players have to be aware of a unique pressure that Franklin never seems to buckle under. Based on his response about continuing with the club in 2015, he’s more driven than ever to keep going.
2014 certainly wasn’t an overall success. The Thunder finished the season with the 3rd worst record in Eastern division (67-75), but because the minor leagues are less results-driven in that regard, no minor league manager is going to be fired based on that alone. This year’s Thunder roster included top Yankees prospects catcher Gary Sanchez, outfielder Mason Williams, and pitcher Luis Severino. Pitcher Manny Banuelos was also on the roster, and while he’s still a prospect, he was coming off Tommy John surgery. The squad was deep with talent, but pitching and offense was inconsistent.
Minor league managers surely always have their on a major league job, but there’s something to be said for one that can handle the task of player development. Ultimately, like the players, not every minor league manager will fare well in a larger role, at the highest level of the game. Franklin has spoken thoughtfully of retirement, and respectfully about wanting a bigger shot, be it the big leagues, or even Triple-A. For now, he seems content with and dedicated to the role that he’s played since 2007.
What would be unfortunate is if the Yankees were to let Franklin walk this year- highly unlikely- without allowing him a chance to move up. If he doesn’t get his shot this year, down the road, that door should be opened to him. There are managers, and then there are teachers. Franklin has always been the latter.