After Breakout Prospect MiLBY, infielder won't ambush teams
October 30, 2013
MiLBYs are the end-of-season awards that honor the best players, teams and performances of the Minor League season. For three weeks, fans chose their favorites in 13 categories, and now we're announcing the Fans' Choice winners as well as MiLB.com staff picks for the major awards.
To the outsider looking in, Maikel Franco's breakout season came out of nowhere. After all, the element of surprise is implicit in the term "breakout," right?
For those within the Phillies organization, however, it was only a matter of time before the hard-swinging third baseman from the Dominican Republic broke onto the scene. In the process, he became our staff's pick for Breakout Prospect of the Year.
"We felt like we had a pretty good idea of what we had," Philadelphia's director of player development Joe Jordan said. "I don't think there's any question he caught some people off guard. I think we, like every organization, need surprises.
"I definitely think that as excited as we were, he far exceeded what we had hoped would happen this year. I think what we have in mind for him and what next year might bring, it's better than what we thought we were looking at a year ago. Good for us. Good for him."
Consider Franco's final stats from 2013. He mashed 31 homers and plated 103 runs over two levels between Class A Advanced Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He led all Minor Leaguers with 308 total bases and finished tied for second with 70 extra-base hits en route to winning the organization's Paul Owens Award for Player of the Year.
"I mean, it was a great season," Franco said. "I was surprised. This year was a good year -- sometimes I think it's unbelievable. Thirty-one home runs and 103 RBIs -- it's incredible."
He was one of only four Minor Leaguers to post a 30/100 season. The other three? They're all names you would expect to see in such a list: top Cubs prospect Javier Baez, No. 2 Twins prospect Miguel Sano and Astros first-rounder George Springer.
The trio finished the year as baseball's third-, ninth- and 22nd-best prospects.
"Obviously, for a kid that plays at 20 years old for the most part all year, we couldn't map the year out any better for him, the progress he made," said Jordan.
"The kid is a good offensive prospect and he's a run producer. He's one of those guys that has the skill to knock in runs. I don't know that we could have drawn it up any better than he did. He's so young and that's what's exciting."
The statistics confirm the growth Franco made, seemingly overnight.
He hit five homers in his first two seasons of pro ball and he was batting .207 in the Class A South Atlantic League with Lakewood at the All-Star break last summer.
Then something clicked as he hit .327 in July and rounded out 2012 with a .370 batting average in August. He made further improvements over the winter and then found considerable success across two higher levels in 2013.
Franco batted .299 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in Clearwater this year and then was .339 with 15 long balls and 51 RBIs in 69 contests following a promotion to the Eastern League.
"Honestly, his offensive numbers speak for themselves -- he can hit," said Chris Truby, who managed Franco the first half of the season in Clearwater. "2012 was his first full season and he was definitely under the radar to some people, but we've had him for a couple years and we could see [his growth] each and every year when he came to [the instructional league] and Spring Training. He won't catch anybody off guard next year."
How Maikel Franco compared to other 30/100 prospects
Florida State League pitchers are unlikely to get another shot at Franco in 2014 and there's a real possibility he's played his final game in Reading. Depending on the progress he makes in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic and during the early stages of Spring Training in March, he could realistically start next season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Devon Travis, West Michigan/Lakeland
The 22-year-old Florida State product led all Detroit middle infielders with 16 homers and 76 RBIs, and his 261 total bases were the most in the organization at any position. He hit .351 over two levels, ranking fourth in the Minors in batting average and second among players in full-season leagues. He swiped 22 bases in 26 attempts and was one of only four players in the Minors to hit at least .325 with double-digit homers and 20 or more stolen bases. His MiLBY for Breakout Prospect is his second MiLBY as he was also the fans' choice for top offensive player. Voting results »
Two people in particular, who have seen Franco develop over the years, know this isn't just a pipe dream.
Reading Fightin Phils hitting coach Frank Cacciatore worked with Franco in the Gulf Coast League after he signed as a non-drafted free agent in January 2010. Alongside then-17-year-old Franco on that GCL team was the player Philadelphia chose first in the 2010 Draft that summer, Jesse Biddle.
"I had him when he was a really, really young kid for the first couple years in instructional league, and you could tell there was a lot of potential there, but it was raw talent," Cacciatore said. "To see him in Reading, the improvement in his plate discipline, using all the fields, hitting the breaking ball, it was pretty impressive. A lot of times a guy will come out of high-A ball to Double-A and there's an adjustment period because of the jump to that level, but he was able to handle it all. I can't say enough about him.
"He's made leaps and bounds as far as his development. It's pretty exciting to see because he's going very fast. The way his approach was and the way his work ethic was, it didn't surprise me that he did that. But he made the adjustments so readily -- that was the most impressive."
Biddle was equally impressed with the growth he saw, describing him as a "sparkplug" and saying his game speaks for itself when you see him play day in, day out.
"I don't want to call it surprising, because I played with him back in the GCL in 2010," said Biddle, who struck out Franco on three pitches at the Futures Game at Citi Field in July. "I knew he had all the talent in the world to do it. I wouldn't call it surprising, but I was definitely really happy to see it. He's a really hard-working kid and the nicest guy in the world. He's the kind of person you really root for no matter what.
"He still has that incredible bat speed that he's had ever since I first saw him play. When he came up, everybody paid a lot of attention and there was definitely a sense of a lot of respect for that guy, the way he went about his business. There weren't a lot of guys -- and I don't think there are -- that every time they come up, you expect something to happen. When he gets out, you're surprised -- that's the difference. It's not when he hits a home run you're surprised, it's when he gets out."
For all the hype -- and much of it may be well deserved considering what he accomplished this year -- about Franco's bat, his game is far from complete. His defense remains a work a progress, his base running is average at best and his walk rate isn't considered anything better than so-so.
Then there's the question of whether he'll even stick as a third baseman or whether a move across the diamond is in his long-term future.
Whatever his defensive home, Franco knows that if his bat gets him to the Majors, his glove needs to at least be serviceable to keep him there.
"I'm really comfortable with my season at third base, but I think I have to practice [moving] side to side," said Franco. "I'm getting better and better every day. [In the Dominican Winter League], I'll practice taking ground balls and going side to side, fielding slow rollers and balls in the hole. I'll practice every day."
Whatever happens this offseason, the implications of Franco's huge 2013 season are clear.
"If you project him out to be 25 or 26 [years old] and he's had a couple years in the big leagues, I would expect him to be a real good contact hitter with a minimum number of strikeouts," said Cacciatore, who likened him to Domonic Brown and said he hopes fans will see him at Citizens Bank Ballpark within the next 12 months.
"I can see him after a few years hitting in the middle of the lineup -- No. 3, No. 5, No. 6 -- in RBI positions. He will be an impact-type guy. He might scuffle coming out of the gate, but I don't see that lasting very long."
Truby said "the sky is the limit" for Franco and expects him to profile as a middle-of-the-lineup threat in the Majors. Jordan said he reminds him of a young Miguel Cabrera, "an exciting and intelligent kid" who has the tools to be a 30-homer, 100-RBI player in the big leagues.
"I think a lot of people were probably surprised with whatever his average was and how many home runs he hit," said Biddle. "It's all really impressive, but I'll tell you someone who wasn't surprised and that's Maikel Franco. I think that's all that matters."
Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB.