Less than eight months ago, Nick Franklin looked like a virtual lock to be the second baseman for the Seattle Mariners for a long time. In his age 22 season, the switch-hitter had continued with the improvement he showed early in the 2013 season in Triple-A Tacoma and was handling big league pitching. Working walks, hitting for power, and showing that he belonged in the major leagues as an offensive and defensive player. Following his second two-homer game on July 28th at home against the Twins, Franklin was hitting a robust .277/.340/.492 for Seattle.
But as often happens once rookies have been through the league, Franklin began being worked a bit differently by opposing pitchers, his weaknesses, aggressiveness and inexperience being exposed, and he struggled down the stretch. He hit just .167/.264/.257 over his final 50 games of the year, striking out 63 times in 197 (a whopping 32.0% strikeout rate) plate appearances in the process. He had shown a ton of promise early, but much like the young hitter he had replaced at second base for the Mariners (Dustin Ackley), Nick had also shown that his trials and tribulations weren't done after his first taste of the big leagues. The Mariners and their fans liked what Franklin could become, but he wasn't there yet. Still, it seemed clear that he was their second baseman.
And then on December 12th, things got complicated.
The Mariners made a shocking acquisition, signing the best free agent available in Robinson Cano, formerly of the New York Yankees. A 10-year, $240 million dollar contract for the man who was clearly going to be Seattle's second baseman in 2014 and far into the future. A two-time Gold Glove winner at the position, five-time Silver Slugger honoree and five-time All-Star, Cano is viewed as one of the elite players in the game, and the best second baseman playing today.
Franklin, who came up through the ranks of the minor leagues for the Mariners playing nearly two-thirds of his games as a shortstop, entered camp this year in what the club called an "open competition" for the starting shortstop job. But although Franklin has put together a solid spring at the plate (.243/.349/.405 in 43 plate appearances) and in the field, seeing a majority of his time at short, it seems almost certain to everyone watching that incumbent Brad Miller (who debuted in Seattle a month after Franklin did) has that job in the bag.
But as General Manager Jack Zduriencik said on 710 ESPN Seattle on Wednesday, "We are not forced to do anything. I like both players a lot. You never know what could happen." A lot of that sounds like what we'd expect a GM to say, but Zduriencik went a bit further, saying, "we're not shopping either player. I don't have intentions of trading either guy." More GM speak? Possibly. But maybe the Mariners understand that since they've struggled to produce big league quality hitters through the farm system, simply discarding Franklin -- someone who has shown big potential with the bat -- isn't a smart way to go.
There has been talk among the fans and out here in the vast knowledge wasteland that is the internet that the Mariners should simply shift Nick Franklin to the outfield. As we all have seen with Ackley and others, that is often much more easily said than done. Moving a player to a position he's never played before, as Ron Washington says in Moneyball: "It's incredibly hard." But Franklin grades out as a better athlete as Ackley, and the Mariners have had success in converting an athletic infielder to the outfield before -- Adam Jones.
Like Franklin, Jones started off in the M's system as a shortstop, playing 275 of 282 games there during his first three seasons in the organization. He was the starting center fielder and a Gold Glove winner for Baltimore just three years later, and he now has three Gold Gloves in his trophy case. While some will argue that Jones didn't exactly deserve all of those awards, the clear point of the comparison here is that his transition from shortstop to center field has been a successful one.
I don't know if Franklin can find the same success if the M's decide to move him to center field, but with second base and shortstop likely nailed down for the immediate future in Seattle, if the Mariners are serious about trying to get Nick Franklin into their lineup -- which I think they should be -- it is a move that should be made as soon as possible. While it is true that such a move could diminish his trade value if it doesn't work out in the long run and that it would certainly kill it for the first part of 2014, the upside is that the M's could find their answer in center while keeping the offense of Franklin, Miller and Cano all in the same lineup.
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