CLEARWATER, Fla. — In an annual ritual, the Phillies clubhouse staff inserts nameplates above each locker in the weeks leading up to spring training. There is little thought to the stall assignments. They are simply assigned for camp in numerical order. No. 2 sits next to No. 4, who sits next to No. 5, and so on.
But then No. 7 was placed next to No. 41. Maikel Franco, entering a season that will likely determine his future with the Phillies, found his locker next to that of Carlos Santana, the player signed this offseason who the Phillies hope can infuse the clubhouse with positive vibes as much as he improves the team's on-base percentage. The locker numbers were suddenly out of order. And it was not by accident.
"Definitely not by accident," manager Gabe Kapler said.
The Phillies praised Santana for his positive presence when they introduced him in December. He was known as a strong teammate during his eight seasons in Cleveland. Santana provides a needed veteran influence to a youthful Phillies team, the youngest in all of baseball. The Phillies hope he can give Franco some guidance. Santana will report to camp in the next few days — the team's first full workout is not until Monday. He will find Franco, his first pupil, waiting.
"I appreciate that," Franco said. "They put me close to the guy that I want to learn from."
Franco struggled mightily last season, failing to emerge as the lineup threat the Phillies thought he was ready to be. His .281 on-base percentage was the lowest among all third baseman and fourth worst among all hitters. He walked just 41 times, and his .409 slugging percentage was the fourth lowest by a corner infielder. Santana had a .362 on-base percentage over the last three seasons, saw nearly four pitches per plate appearance last season, and walked almost as frequently as he struck out. There is knowledge to be passed on.
"The way Santana manages an at-bat is second to none," Kapler said. "He has so much plate discipline, and I think Franco has that ability too and he's showed that at times in the past. Just watching how Santana manages an at-bat will be important. But also the professionalism. Santana is an incredible gregarious, warm, open individual. All of us aspire to be that. I think every man in that room aspires to be that. It's not just Franco, but I'm glad that they're next to each other. All of us can follow that example."
Franco is still four seasons away from becoming a free agent, and the Phillies would like to keep him in their plans. But those wishes will change if Franco's struggles continue. The Phillies will spend big next winter, and a third baseman – namely Baltimore's Manny Machado – can be bought. Franco's performance this season will help determine if he fits into the Phillies' future.
He prepared for this crucial season at home in the Dominican and reported to camp in noticeably better shape. Franco worked with a personal trainer and changed his diet. He aims to make sure his season is not a repeat of last year, when his swing often looked lost and he was relegated to the bench for most of September. Those troubles carried into the offseason, when he was briefly suspended by his winter league team for being photographed at a club with teammates the night before a game. It was a mistake, Franco said, and it would not happen again. The suspension was lifted and the Phillies instructed Franco to leave the team. It was a sad finish to a season Franco hoped would be his breakout year.
"Last season is in the past already," Franco said. "I have to get focused on this season. This season is going to be really good for me. As soon as I got back home, I put something in my mind that I had to get better. I wanted to work hard and come in here ready every single day and do everything I can to get better."
Franco called Santana in December shortly after Santana signed his $60 million deal. Both are from the Dominican Republic and knew each other from winter ball. They talked that night about hitting and wanting to win in Philadelphia.
"It was a good conversation," Franco said. "I want to get everything I can from him to get better. He's been around for eight years. I got a lot of information and I feel good."
The Phillies hope those conversations continue. Santana arrived at Phillies camp Friday afternoon and worked out with the team Saturday. The two took batting practice together and worked in the weight room. Santana and Franco will be two of the biggest pieces of a lineup that is full of potential. If Franco emerges in this crucial season, his rise can be traced back to a nameplate that was placed out of order.
"It is basically one thing and one thing only, and that is to work every single day. We're going to work together every single day," Santana said. "We're going to make sure he executes the plan he wants to follow. I know he's a guy that's very talented and he's capable of a lot. So I'm going to be there. I'm committed to helping him. I'm going to be in the cage, hitting as many balls as possible.