Maikel Franco of the Philadelphia Phillies is one of the more polarizing rookies making his big league debut this September. Let's start with the basic background and how things looked pre-season.
Franco made enormous strides offensively last year, blasting High-A and Double-A pitching for power and average. He drove his OPS+ from 8 percent in ’12 to +33 (Clearwater) and +29 percent (Reading). He did this while striking out just 70 times. Franco doesn’t walk much but his strikeout rate is low for a guy with this kind of power. There have been complaints about his swing mechanics but so far pitchers haven’t found any real holes to exploit, at least none that show up statistically.
Although Franco saw some time at first base last year, his defense at third is actually solid; indeed, earlier in his career he was regarded as a guy with a strong glove who might not hit enough. He has a good arm, sufficient range and doesn’t make a ton of errors. Franco looks heavier than his listed weight of 180 and he doesn’t run well, so while he’s fine at third base in the short run, first could be his long-term destination.
Although the numbers (.320/.356/.569 with 31 homers) are excellent and most scouting reports quite positive, there are some respected observers (both insiders and outsiders) who seem oddly negative on Franco. Are they onto something, or are they just being stubborn about a guy who exceeded expectations? Grade B+.
Well now we have a full season of Triple-A data, and the results were mixed. Franco got off to a horrible start, hitting .172/.254/.233 in April for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League. Scouting reports were no better than the numbers, with a lot of "I told you sos" floating around baseball in regards to his swing. He rebounded in May (.282/.358/.445), tanked again in June (.162/.196/.238) and went into mid-season as a serious question-mark, although he did earn a nod to the 2014 Futures Game.
The second half was much different: he hit .343/.371/.596 in July and .308/.319/.564 in August, for a composite mark of .309/.326/.551 with 10 homers in his last 46 games. His overall line came out at .257/.299/.428 with 16 homers, 30 walks, and 81 strikeouts in 521 at-bats, but as you can see it was two different seasons for him.
Franco's defense is an interesting note. Scouting reports for his glove are not particularly good, with most observers saying his defense is mediocre at best. He may not look pretty, but somehow he gets the job done statistically, with adequate-to-good range and reliability indicators at third throughout his career. That was reflected in my pre-season report. His range will continue to decline and the Phillies are already giving him innings at first base, but I do think his glove ability at third is a little better than he is normally given credit for.
Ultimately it boils down to the bat of course. Reports from later in the season were notably more enthusiastic than the early observations and once again emphasized his combination of bat speed and contact ability. Funny how that tracks the stat line that we're not supposed to scout.
I had him as a Grade B+ pre-season and intend to stick with that, though his pre-season rank of #15 (a very strong B+) on the hitter list will slip, probably into the 20s or 30s. Given the totality of his career and his age (22), I remain optimistic, though ups and downs should be expected.