When the Orioles signed free agent third baseman Maikel Franco back on March 16 — in the middle of spring training — there was hope that he would be an upgrade over the incumbent at the hot corner, Rio Ruiz. Franco was supposed to bring a veteran presence and add stability to the lineup, along with some pop. That has not been the case.
It’s the kind of move that Oriole fans have come to expect, settling for a player with middling promise who was only available at the time because no one else would give him a shot.
An early reason for optimism was Franco’s relatively successful 2020 campaign, in which he slashed .278/.321/.457 with eight home runs in 223 at-bats with the Royals. It was a bounceback season for Franco after he struggled through the 2019 season — his last with the Phillies — while registering an OPS+ of 82.
It’s kind of hard to believe that Franco is still only 28 years old. He signed with the Phillies out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 and debuted four years later. In the first six years of his major league career, all spent in Philadelphia, he had a .249/.302/.431 triple-slash line and an OPS+ below 100. But there were points during his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love where he was a solid hitter and seemed on the cusp of a true breakout. It just never came to fruition.
Going by MLB standards, Franco should really be in his prime right now. But his career-high in home runs (25) came in 2016 at age 23, and his career-high OPS+ (130) was the year before that.
When Franco signed with Baltimore in March, some folks had the notion that if he put up solid numbers in the first half of the season, he’d be flipped for something of value by the July trade deadline, thereby generating a decent return on the Orioles’ relatively modest $800,000 investment. Not likely.
And as far-fetched as it sounds right now, there was a scenario where Franco might have earned a new contract with the O’s if he seriously overperformed, considering their lack of organizational depth at third base. But that’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind right now.
We’re now two and a half months into the season, and Franco has a bWAR of -1.0 and an fWAR of 0.0. His OPS+ currently stands at 69.
He’s a free swinger with little-to-no plate discipline, which is a contributing factor to the team having the eighth-worst on-base percentage in baseball (.302) and the fourth-fewest walks (188).
It’s tough to watch him lunging at balls out of the strike zone — especially when they happen to be in the left side batter’s box — and roll over on breaking balls down and away that result in weak ground balls.
Looking at his offensive Statcast metrics over at Baseball Savant shows a lot of blue, which is not good. That includes an average exit velocity in the bottom 16th percentile in all of MLB, a hard-hit percentage in the bottom 8th percentile, and a barrel percentage in the bottom 20th percentile, to name just a few.
Yes, there is still a chance that Franco will get hot at the plate and resurrect his poor season with a strong second half. But unfortunately, his half-season splits don’t support that theory. Over the course of his first seven years in the bigs, he has shockingly similar numbers before and after the All-Star break. Take, for example, his career .245 batting average and .733 OPS in the first half versus his .246 BA and .702 OPS in the second half. He’s proven to be nothing if not consistent.
It’s getting to the point where you have to wonder if the O’s will cut their losses by midseason. But like so many other positions across the diamond right now, the Birds don’t have a viable replacement for Franco’s spot.
A quick glance at the major league roster shows utility men Pat Valaika and Stevie Wilkerson, but neither has been able to hold down the second base job. The former is batting .194 and the latter is batting .186. Down at Triple-A Norfolk, Rylan Bannon is currently batting .175 with a .545 OPS and is currently on the IL with an oblique strain, so don’t expect him to get a call-up anytime soon.
It looks like the O’s have no choice but to stick with Franco for the time being, and as fans, it looks like we just have to grin and bear it.