Saturday, July 6, 2013

Prospect Jam at the Hot Corner for Phillies

Maikel Franco is on the rise, image- Jay Floyd
Third base has been a troublesome offensive spot for the Phillies over the last decade. A homegrown prospect hasn't graced the hot corner for the Fightins since 2002, when the club dealt former second-round pick Scott Rolen. In the years since that swap, Phillies third basemen have lacked the usual power that comes from third base.

During a period when the big league team enjoyed five straight division titles and a couple of World Series bids, the void at third base didn't stand out very much because of all the offense posted by nearly every other position on the field. But as players around the diamond have declined, the lack of pop from the hot corner has been more apparent.

Over the past decade the Phillies for the most part used Placido Polanco, David Bell and Pedro Feliz -- a group that posted weak stat lines compared to MLB averages from 3B over the same stretch.

Since the Phils traded away Rolen, the 29 other teams have roughly averaged a .262 batting average, while tallying 261 homers and 1,119 RBI from their third basemen. The Phils' talent at that position has delivered a .256 average with just 150 total home runs and 927 total RBI.

On the way to the rescue is a pair of prospects that have swiftly risen through the Phillies' developmental ranks. With Triple-A All-Star Cody Asche and Futures Game representative Maikel Franco pounding opposing pitchers for their respective teams, the Phils could soon be faced with a problem they'll enjoy hashing out -- having two ascending stars make a push for a starting role at the big-league level at once.

But, will the Phillies, as a precaution, make a move to prevent any crowding at third base?

"Right now, I don't think so," Reading manager Dusty Wathan said of the possibility of the Phillies forecasting a change of positions for either Asche of Franco, to prevent a conflict at the position at the top level of the Phils' organization. "I think we're happy with both their development. They're at two different levels. It could be a problem that we have in the future, hopefully, in the near future, that they're both knocking on the door to be in the big leagues and we'll have to figure something out. But, at this time, there's not really any talk about moving either one of them off of third base."

And while there may not be discussions that the Phillies are willing to share with the media and players, it would be foolish for the team's director of player development, Joe Jordan, and other members of the Phils brass to not have a game plan in mind, as the clear goal for both players is to have them holding down a spot in the Phillies' lineup going forward for the foreseeable future. So, the smart bet would be that the Phillies will be trying one or both guys elsewhere around the diamond at some point.

Franco, who plans to play in the Dominican Winter League this coming off-season, would be excited for the challenge of shifting to another defensive spot, if the Phillies asked. Winter leagues are a fine spot for trials and practice at new positions, as slugger Darin Ruf learned last year, using time with La Guaira in Venezuela to build his defensive skill set in the outfield.

"When [I] was young [I] played shortstop, but I moved to third base when I signed with the Phillies," Franco stated. "I think I could try to play shortstop up here, or something, outfield, you know what I mean?"

Franco, 20, was signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 17 in January 2010. The right-handed batter has posted strong numbers this season, hitting .319 with 20 home runs and 63 RBI through 79 combined games at Class A Advanced Clearwater and Double-A Reading.

Cody Asche wants a taste of the majors, image- Jay Floyd
Asche, the Phils' fourth-round draft choice in 2011 out of the University of Nebraska, is batting .284 with eight homers and 49 RBI through 83 contests with Lehigh Valley this year. The 22-year-old played second base with the short-season A level Williamsport Crosscutters upon making his pro debut a couple years back. Both players, each of whom stands 6-foot-1 and weighs around 180 pounds, are praised for their quick hands and good instincts on defense.

In an interview this past pre-season, the lefty batting Asche addressed changing positions as something that would be welcome if it helped him reach the big leagues. At this point in the season, however, Asche seems a bit less enthused about the subject.

"As of right now I am a third baseman, so that's what I'm going to focus on getting better at," Asche said on Friday.

If Franco is to move to shortstop, or Asche is to switch to second base, or either tries any other position, it's not just the other man that they'd be trying to avoid a conflict with. The Phillies have some other prominent infield prospects that have already spent some time with the big club. Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez are close to being able to help the major-league team on a long-term basis.

Asche, a Missouri native, certainly seems to appreciate the overall games of his potential competition.

"Those three all are very good players," Asche asserted. "It's fun to watch all of them play. They, all three, are good teammates and play the game the right way."

No matter where each individual plays, the Phils surely have a nice collection of young talent on the rise and the future is bright at a position that has been a considerable concern for quite some time.

Now just imagine what the future of the infield might look like had the Phils never dealt Jonathan Singleton!

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