In the late innings of a tie game at Bradenton with a runner on second and no outs, Clearwater Threshers manager Chris Truby gave Maikel Franco a message as the power-hitting third baseman walked to the plate.
“Do a job,” he said, reminding Franco to hit the ball to the right side and advance the runner to third base.
Bypassing the Dominican Summer League and starting his pro career in the Gulf Coast League after the Philadelphia Phillies signed him as an international free agent at 17, Franco arrived in the United States as a raw pull hitter, a label that he tirelessly worked to shed.
This season, hitting cleanup for the Threshers, the emphasis on hitting to all fields has produced the desired results, as the at-bat in Bradenton demonstrated. Instead of hitting a ground ball to the right side, Franco launched a blast over the right-center fence.
The home run symbolized the adjustments Franco has made in his tenure with the Phillies organization, which started when he was inked out of the Dominican Republic for $100,000 in 2010.
He has prodigious power. Earlier this season, which is his first in advanced Single-A, Franco swatted a home run at Clearwater’s Bright House Field that struck the straw roof of the tiki bar beyond left field. The only other hitter to accomplish that feat was Miguel Cabrera, who did so against Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon in spring training. Recently, in a game at Dunedin, Franco broke a scoreless tie in the sixth inning with a three-run home run that caromed off the scoreboard in left center. Yet it is that at-bat in Bradenton that brings a wide smile to his face.
“I worked hard on going the opposite way in batting practice and eventually I was able to hit that way in game situations,” the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Franco explained. “I took away the left side of the field and concentrated on sending the ball to center and right (in batting practice).
“At each level, the pitching is more advanced, so if I can show that I can hit the ball the opposite way, it gives me an advantage and makes it more difficult for pitchers to get me out,” he added. “I wasn’t trying to hit that home run in Bradenton. I just wanted to get the job done, but I got a pitch I could drive, and it was a great feeling to get two runs instead of moving the runner to third.”
Now 20, Franco has remained among the Florida State League leaders in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS this season. Last year was a breakout campaign for him. He batted .280 with 14 home runs and 84 RBI, reinforcing the potential that Phillies international scouting director Phillies international scouting director Sal Agostinelli saw when Franco was signed and sent to the GCL instead of the DSL.
“(Phillies Dominican Republic-based scout) Koby Perez saw Maikel several times and told me, ‘You gotta see this kid’s power and arm,’” Agostinelli said. “He has an unconventional swing, but he consistently squares up the ball. We think he will be a middle of the order run producer and a fixture at third base for several seasons.”
Franco has below-average foot speed, Agostinelli said, but that did not deter the Phillies from signing him.
“We thought about switching him to catcher, but he showed that he had the lateral movement, the hands and the arm to be a strong defensive third baseman,” Agostinelli said. “Foot speed is not as important for a third baseman as it is for a shortstop or second baseman. With his lateral movement, we felt confident he would be a strong defensive third baseman.”
Franco has committed just one error this season for the Threshers, but his pro debut with the GCL Phillies was not so clean.
“I fielded a grounder and threw it over the first baseman’s head” Franco said with a grin. “The next batter hit a grounder to me, and I threw it over the first baseman’s head again. I had a lot of jitters. It was a tough adjustment going right from the Dominican Republic to the Gulf Coast League.”
In 194 at-bats for the GCL Phillies in 2010, Franco batted .222 with two home runs, 29 RBI and a .622 OPS in 51 games. The next season, he hit .287 with a .778 OPS for Williamsport in the New York-Penn League, but managed just two home runs in 54 games and 202 at-bats. After a promotion to low Single- Lakewood, he batted .123 (8-for-65) with one home run.
Franco attributes his on-field struggles those first two seasons to being a teenager adapting to a new country, away from the family that had supported him since he first picked up a bat and a glove at the age of 7.
“Until that first game in the GCL, my family was always there watching me play. It was hard to be 17 and suddenly find myself in a new country, miles and miles away from home,” Franco said. “Baseball was an escape for me. Off the field, I was under a lot of pressure because I was learning a new language, eating unfamiliar food and adjusting to a new culture. On the field, though I struggled with my numbers, I was at least playing a game that I have loved since I was a little kid.”
Clearwater manager and former Major League third baseman Chris Truby says that Franco appears fully adjusted to life as a highly regarded prospect playing pro ball in the United States. Franco, Truby says, is a popular teammate with his high-energy and upbeat personality, and he is a more well-rounded and confident hitter.
“He has improved with his pitch recognition and plate discipline since he started his pro career, and he has adjusted to how he is being pitched,” Truby said. “Since he has so much power, pitchers want to pitch him away, but he has shown that he is comfortable driving the ball the opposite way. That is the sign of an advanced hitter.”