CLEARWATER, Fla. - Maikel Franco began last season as the Phillies' cleanup hitter, one of the most important players in the lineup.
By the time September rolled around, he wasn't even a full-time starter. There were nights when he sat so the team could take a look at J.P. Crawford.
"It was difficult," Franco conceded after a workout at Phillies camp Wednesday.
Franco made it easy for the Phillies to take away playing time last season. Though he managed to lead the team in home runs (24) and RBIs (76), his OPS was a dreadful .690, the lowest among 18 major-league third basemen who had 400 or more plate appearances.
Looking back now, Franco says the loss of playing time was a wake-up call. He went home to the Dominican Republic for the winter knowing he needed to improve.
It started with getting in better shape. Team officials told him he needed to do so, "but I knew it, too," he said. He has reported to camp early. His midsection is noticeably trimmer and his upper body looks strong. His weight, he said, is between 218 and 220 pounds. He ended last season at 232.
During the offseason, Franco worked out regularly with instructor Manny Amador at the Phillies' academy in the Dominican. Franco made no dramatic adjustments to his swing, but he did work on trying to elevate the ball more. He ranked 34th in the majors with 176 balls hit 95 miles per hour or harder in 2017. With that exit velocity, Phillies officials believe he will do more damage if he gets the ball in the air. He does not run well, so ground balls are not his friend.
Launch angle isn't the only area that Franco is looking to improve. Selectivity has been a career-long problem. He worked out regularly in the DR with new teammate Carlos Santana, who has outstanding strike-zone control. The two talked about the concept and Franco believes he is ready to make improvements in that area.
"This is a big year for me, no question," said Franco, emerging from the batting cage and soaked in sweat after some extra work. "Everybody expected I would put up better numbers last year.
"I put it in my mind that I needed to be better and I worked hard in the offseason. I know I need to be more consistent. I expect more than I did last year. More walks, more RBIs, more on-base percentage, more home runs. I have to be more selective. Everything. Calm down and don't get too aggressive. Don't overswing. Put the ball in play."
New hitting coach John Mallee will stress these areas of improvement with Franco.
This is a big year for the 25-year-old third baseman. Everyone knows Manny Machado will be a free agent at season's end. And it's well known that the Phillies like him and have the money to sign him. Even a big, breakout season from Franco might not get the Phillies off of Machado.
But a strong season will ensure Franco's future somewhere. It would build some trade value.
"I'm confident that I am going to have a good season," Franco said.
"Because I had an amazing offseason," he said.
Well, Franco's offseason wasn't completely amazing. There was one highly publicized misstep. He and some winter ball teammates were photographed frolicking over drinks in the DR close to sunrise in early January. His team, the Giants, had a playoff game later that day. The club disciplined the players and Franco did not play again for the club.
"I was with friends," he said. "We went out. We were having fun and somebody took a picture.
"I know I made a mistake. I will learn from it. It's not going to happen again."