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Series Preview: Have the Phillies found someone to build around?

From 2007-2011, the Philadelphia Phillies won five straight NL East titles, two NL Pennants, and one World Series title. Then they got old.... fast. The Phillies haven't had a lot of luck developing a new core from within their system over the past four seasons, but one of their top prospects seems to be showing signs of emerging into a star over the past few weeks.

Maikel Franco has been a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the Phillies in 2015.
Maikel Franco has been a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the Phillies in 2015.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the not so recent past, the Philadelphia Phillies were the team that everyone in the NL East was chasing.  With an offense centered around Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jr., and Chase Utley, they scored the most runs in the National League from 2007-2011.  With a rotation built around Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, they weren't slouches on the mound either.  The Phillies won five straight division titles from 2007-2011, winning a World Series and two NL Pennants in the process.

Then they got old in a hurry and have been saddled with a laundry list of bad contracts ever since.  Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. hasn't had a lot of luck dealing away those expensive deals on older, declining players* over the past few seasons.  They'd dealt off key pieces of the farm system during their run of division titles, leaving the cupboard kind of bare in the high minors.

*Many feel that this is because he's been unreasonable in his demands

Entering the 2015 season, the Phillies major league roster didn't have a whole lot in the way of exciting young talent.  27-year-old outfielder Domonic Brown was a one-time top prospect who hadn't really sustained much success.  27-year-old center fielder Ben Revere had shown that he didn't have the arm to stick in CF and didn't show enough patience or power at the plate to complement his speed.  24-year-old third baseman Cody Asche showed enough with the bat to indicate he could turn into a decent big league regular after batting .252/.309/.390 with 10 HR last season, but it was clear that he was never going to be a star.

Nearly three months into the season, it seems the Phillies may have finally found someone new to try and build around. After Asche started slowly, Philadelphia sent him down to Lehigh Valley for a few weeks to teach him the outfield and replaced him at third base with top prospect Maikel Franco.

Franco emerged as one of the top power-hitting prospects in the minors in 2013 between Clearwater (A+) and Reading (AA).  As a 20-year-old that season, Franco hit .320/.356/.569 with 31 HR and 36 doubles in 586 PA.  That tremendous outburst gave the Phillies a ray of hope as it looked like they might have an impact bat that wasn't that far off.  Based on his strong 2013 campaign, Franco shot up the prospect charts, jumping to the top of the Phillies' system by many scouting services.  Here's what Minor League Ball's John Sickels said about him prior to last season....

1) Maikel Franco, 3B, Grade A-: Posted .926 OPS in Double-A at age 20 with a low strikeout rate, 31 homers on the season, 36 doubles with just 70 whiffs in 581 PA. Despite impeccable performance at young age, some observers still critique his swing and overall approach. Usually serious swing problems show up with an elevated strikeout rate and/or serious production slippage in the high minors, but so far that hasn’t occurred. We’ll see what happens in Triple-A, but overall I can’t see how Franco is anything but an elite prospect.

Franco didn't have a great follow-up campaign in 2014.  He began the year in AAA and remained there until September when the rosters expanded.  He hit .257/.229/.428 at Lehigh Valley in 2014.  Franco's power didn't disappear, but it certainly dropped off quite a bit for the IronPigs.  After he'd maintained a .249 ISO in 2013 between two levels, it slipped to .171 last season.  His performance with the big club in September was less than inspiring, as he hit just .179/.190/.214.

Since coming up to replace Asche as the Phillies third baseman, Franco seems to be locked in.  He's batting .311/.358/.588 with 10 HR in 159 PA for the Phillies thus far this season.  What's scary is that it took him a little while to get his footing at the big league level.  He started slowly, but has been on fire in the month of June, batting .395/.441/.767 with 8 HR in 22 games this month.  The Phillies next wave still hasn't shown a lot of depth (J.P. Crawford's really good, but just reached AA), but it looks like they may have a pretty good young third baseman on the roster.

The approach that Sickels brought up is something that hasn't really changed for Franco.  He's certainly not a very patient hitter, and hasn't had a walk rate of higher than 5.7% (current 2015 MLB walk rate) at any level since he was at A+ ball in the first half of 2013.  He's kept a fairly reasonable strikeout rate as he's climbed through the system, though.  Outside of his 58 PA cup of coffee in September last season, Franco has maintained a strikeout rate of 16.6% or lower at every stop since 2011.

In today's day and age, Franco seems to have a bit of an odd skill-set.  Among the top thirty HR hitters in 2014, just two of them had a walk rate of lower than 6% (Adam Jones and Marlon Byrd).  Just five of them (Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Edwin Encarnacion, Albert Pujols, Victor Martinez) struck out in fewer than 17% of their plate appearances.  Typically, we see players that hit for big power either strike out a lot, walk a lot, or (most likely) both. Franco doesn't seem to walk or strike out very often.

Even though he's playing for the Nats upcoming opponents, it should be kind of exciting to watch Franco play this weekend.  I haven't had the chance to watch him play, but that statistical line implies that he's a bad ball hitter... with power.  As a former Expos fan, there's one name that always springs to mind when I see a player with that skill set.... Vladimir Guerrero (449 HR, 8.1% BB, 10.9% K career).  Thinking about third basemen with that type of skill set brings me more towards Adrian Beltre (401 HR, 6.8% BB, 14.4% K).

Comparing Franco to either of those players is unfair given that he's a 22-year-old who is just scratching the surface.  That's awfully high praise for a kid that hasn't done anything yet.  It'll be interesting to see him try, though.

All in all, the series matches up extremely well for the Nats. Cole Hamels pitched on Wednesday for the Phillies, so the Nats will draw Aaron Harang, rookie Adam Morgan, and journeyman Kevin Correia.  With the Nats rotation on an historic 41.1 inning scoreless streak right now and the offense starting to roll a bit, there's no reason to think that they shouldn't win at least two out of three.