CLEARWATER, Fla. — You can spend a lot of time waiting for something you once thought was there. That's probably true in a lot of corners of life, but baseball is an especially maddening realm, success and failure swapping places with such ease that it can be difficult to distinguish where one starts and the other ends. If you are only as good as your last at-bat, then 75 percent of the hitters in the sport stink at any given time. Reality is a bit more complex than that, of course, but keep drawing the lens out and it remains difficult to distinguish where the line actually lies: Are you only as good as your last game? Your last month? Your last season?
For the Phillies this season, the question looks like this: How long should we wait for Maikel Franco?
Since the start of the 2016 season, 24 major-league third basemen have logged at least 900 plate appearances. In that group, Franco's .712 OPS ranks last. His .294 on-base percentage? Last. His 2.0 offensive WAR? Last.
Coming off a particularly disappointing 2017 campaign in which he hit .230 with a .690 OPS and posted the fourth-lowest OBP among major-league regulars (.281), Franco enters 2018 needing to give his employer some reason to keep him in its long-term plans. Already, there have been signs that the Phillies' patience is wearing thin. Franco finished last season sharing time at third base with newly called-up J.P. Crawford. This spring, the Phillies plan to get another well-regarded prospect, second baseman Scott Kingery, acclimated to the position. The implications for Franco this season seem clear. The Phillies need to see that he can still be the player who, as a rookie, hit .280 with a .343 OBP and .497 slugging percentage and 14 home runs in 335 plate appearances. And, with Kingery expected to start the season at triple A, Franco might not have the benefit of an entire season to accomplish that.
"I mean, it will be important for me," Franco said of 2018. "This will be really important for me. I know after the 2017 season was over, I just put it in my mind that I have to get better every single day. I have to work hard, and I have to just come in and do everything I can to help my team try to just get better every single day."
He is only 25 years old, with an easy smile and lightness of being that suggest he has his whole life in front of him, a suggestion that most actuarial tables would rate as correct. But baseball grades on a curve that is a double-black diamond when compared with the slope on which the rest of us reside, and it has been two full seasons now since Franco last performed like the player the Phillies need him to be.
Within the scope of the Phillies' rebuilding, his ultimate fate remains a pivotal variable. In Crawford, Kingery, and incumbent second baseman Cesar Hernandez, the Phillies have three young, promising infielders who will eventually need big-league at-bats. It also has a starting pitching rotation in which Aaron Nola is the only obvious long-term top-of-the-rotation arm. If Franco were to reestablish himself as a legitimate asset, it would give general manager Matt Klentak a lot more flexibility in the trade market, where the acquisition of a young, controllable starter often requires parting with a position player who can step into the majors immediately.
From a shorter term perspective, a potential resurgence from the Phillies' onetime third-baseman-of-the-future offers some reason to think that they could slug their way out of their annual September irrelevance. In Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana, they have bona-fide, middle-of-the-order power bats who they feel confident can provide them with above-league-average run production. Factor in some combination of Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams in right field — last year, the duo combined for 31 home runs in 755 plate appearances, the equivalent of 24 over a season of 600 plate appearances — and there's a third spot that could boast 25-plus home-run power and an .800-plus OPS.
If Franco can get back to the level of production he displayed as a rookie, the Phillies could have a heart of the order that makes life miserable for opposing pitchers. In 2017, only eight teams in the majors featured a lineup with at least four players who hit 20-plus home runs with an .800-plus OPS. Six of them won at least 80 games.
For Franco, power has never been a problem. Despite last year's struggles, he still hit 24 home runs. His 49 homers in the last two seasons are tied for 11th among 24 third basemen with at least 750 plate appearances. But the power production hasn't been nearly good enough to offset all the at-bats he has given away.
"I have to try to just get more relaxed, try to know the situation, not be overaggressive, and, like I said, try to control my emotions a little bit," he said. "Just play my game. Play my game the right way and try to have fun and enjoy the game."
At the moment, the Phillies' focus is on giving Franco every possible opportunity to succeed. Part of their rationale for signing veteran first baseman Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract this offseason was the impact they thought he could have on his younger countryman. This spring, the two sluggers have been inseparable. Manager Gabe Kapler, whose itinerary on an offseason trip to the Domincan Republic included a meeting with Franco, assigned the two players side-by-side lockers in the spring training clubhouse. On Tuesday, Franco and Santana retreated after practice to the batting cage, where Santana offered some one-on-one tutoring.
"He looks great, and, seemingly, feels good about himself right now, which is a huge plus for all of us," Kapler said.