Top prospect Franco impressing early on this spring
Infielder showcasing his skills on both sides of ball with hard line drives, soft hands
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Larry Bowa asked Maikel Franco a rhetorical question Tuesday, but he responded anyway.
"Can you hit?" Bowa asked.
"Yeah, I can hit," Franco replied.
Franco, 21, is the top position player prospect in the Phillies' organization, and he has impressed many early in his first big league Spring Training. He entered Tuesday night's Grapefruit League game against the Blue Jays at Bright House Field hitting a modest .273 (3-for-11) with one RBI, two walks and one strikeout, but two of those hits have had people talking and imagining what he could become in the future.
He crushed a line drive over Pirates shortstop Alen Hanson's head in the ninth inning Sunday at Bright House Field. The ball sailed over Hanson before he even had a chance to reach the top of his jump. Franco then crushed a ball up the middle in Monday's game against the Rays in Port Charlotte, nearly hitting Rays pitcher Matt Moore.
Yes, Franco can hit. There seems little question about it. He hit a combined .320 with 36 doubles, three triples, 31 home runs, 103 RBIs and a .926 OPS last season with Class A Advanced Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He is in competition with Cody Asche to be the Opening Day third baseman, but the feeling in camp is Asche is the heavy favorite. (Asche is fine after getting hit on his right hand with a pitch Sunday.)
But it certainly is not a stretch to see Franco making his big league debut this season. If he keeps producing in the Minor Leagues, it will be hard to keep him there.
"It's kind of crazy to think about it," Franco said. "I'm 21. But I'm just going to continue to play, stay in my routine and see what happens. I don't feel any pressure. That's not my job. Just play hard and play good. I don't think about how I have a chance to play in the big leagues this year. No, just play and see what happens."
Franco has impressed Bowa and others in camp with his defense, too. Bowa said Franco reminds him of Adrian Beltre, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner.
That is a pretty high compliment.
"Great work ethic, great kid," Bowa said. "He's got soft hands, a quick first step, a tremendous arm. The harder you hit it, the softer his hands get. Unbelievable. He might be a slow guy running, but his first step is very quick. And with all the technology we have now, the spray charts, where guys hit balls and everything, that will not be a factor."
"The tougher the play, the softer he gets," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "At  years old, it's pretty amazing. He made a play just yesterday behind the bag on the chalk, just effortlessly got it over to first base. He's really hit some vicious line drives the last couple games."
Franco has been working out at first base to make him versatile with Asche at third. Of course, Ryan Howard is at first, but perhaps there could be a time when Asche and Franco platoon at third and Franco occasionally gives Howard a break at first.
"The only thing he lacks right now at first base is where to go on cutoffs," Bowa said. "And that's just because he hasn't played there that much. But he handles it. His hands will play over there. Barring any injuries, he's got a chance to be a very good player. He's got some tools."
Franco said he is getting more and more comfortable in camp after arriving the first day, looking around and seeing former MVPs and All-Stars like Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz.
"I try to go into the cage and watch their routines, watch how they're working," Franco said. "I think I've learned a lot here -- my defense and offense. It's been a good opportunity to learn. And every day I feel more comfortable."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.