For Nick Franklin, the 2013 season got off to an ominous start. After battling the flu in spring training, he was hit with a bad case of tonsillitis on the brink of Tacoma’s season-opening series in Fresno.
“One of my tonsils was on the other side of the uvula,” he said. “I’ve never had that.”
Franklin missed five games, and then returned to the Class AAA Rainiers with a vengeance. Until hitting a 1-for-12 stretch over his last three games (through Friday), Franklin was swinging just about the hottest bat in the entire minor leagues. He raised his average recently to .410, and reached the weekend hitting a still-formidable .356 (26 for 73) with 16 runs scored, four doubles, three home runs, 14 runs batted in, four stolen bases in four attempts, and 16 walks (with just 12 strikeouts).
Naturally, those numbers, coupled with the ongoing offensive struggles of Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan, have fueled a debate about Franklin’s readiness for the major leagues. The switch-hitting Franklin has been a Mariners prospect to watch ever since they selected him in the first round in 2009 out of Lake Brantley High School in Florida. He was their second first-round pick that year, going No. 27 overall — 25 picks after Dustin Ackley.
Now 22, having conquered each level of the minor leagues, Franklin is closer than ever to the major leagues. How close? Here’s what first-year Tacoma hitting coach Howard Johnson told me Thursday at Cheney Stadium amid a hectic day in which John Stearns replaced Daren Brown as the Rainiers’ manager.
“If something were to happen up in Seattle where someone got hurt or something, he’d definitely be an option,” Johnson said. “I definitely think he’s on the verge of being there. I wouldn’t have a problem, if the time were to come today or tomorrow; he could hold his own and do a good job.”
Johnson was a renowned switch-hitter in his day, one who had three 30-homer, 30-stolen-base seasons for the Mets between 1987 and 1991.
“He’s a better switch-hitter than I was,” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “He puts the bat on the ball when he needs to. He’s a very tough out from both sides of the plate. I couldn’t be happier with what Nick has done this year. Especially from last year, the things I heard about where he was as a player, the mental part and all that, to where he is now, he’s really made a big leap. He’s showing a lot of maturity in his approach to the game right now. He’s very close.”
How close? The real answer to that question depends largely on the determination of Franklin’s ability to play shortstop in the major leagues. That question is up for debate. Franklin, in fact, has played more games at second base this season (12) than at shortstop (7), where some doubt if he has the range or arm to make it at the top level.
Carlos Triunfel, another longtime Mariners prospect, has shined as Tacoma’s primary shortstop and might actually be closer to the majors than Franklin. Triunfel, hitting .319 with 10 doubles and three homers, is a more accomplished defensive shortstop with a rocket arm, and is already on the 40-man roster, unlike Franklin.
I asked Johnson — who played 273 games in the majors at shortstop despite being primarily a third baseman — if he felt Franklin could handle shortstop at the major-league level.
“Yes, I think he could,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s going to be able to do it to (the level of) some of the better guys that are out there. I played short for stretches, so he could certainly do it. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t think you have to be the best, flashiest guy to be a shortstop. I think as long as you’re reliable, catch the ball, have good arm strength and good instincts, you can make up for a lot. He’s shown a lot of that already.”
I asked Franklin if it bothered him to have his defense at shortstop questioned. “No, not at all,” he said. “I love playing short. I love playing second. If you put me in left, I don’t care. Whatever they want. I’ll leave it up to them. As long as I’m in the lineup, I don’t care.”
For the record, Franklin played left field for Team USA as a teenager.
The Mariners seem content, for now, to let Franklin play at the Triple-A level for a while longer and see if his hot hitting is sustainable, or a product of a Pacific Coast League that is exceptionally hitter-friendly. Franklin says he’s happy to help the red-hot Rainiers, who took a 10-game winning streak into Saturday, win a championship.
“This team is great,” he said. “I wish they could move up all of us at the same time.”
You may be wondering about the status of Franklin’s much-publicized winter diet in which he ate 6,500 calories a day in an attempt to gain 34 pounds and reach 200. He said he is currently at 185, having lost 15 pounds while he was sick.
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “I’m trying to gain weight back, at least hit 190, hopefully soon. That’s not my biggest focus.”
There were rumblings that the Mariners were displeased when they heard about his voracious eating regimen and had him back off, but he said that’s overblown.
“Oh, no, the team didn’t have me change it at all,” he said. “I think there was just some miscommunication. I don’t know how it got transferred, but someone said I had fast food. I wasn’t having any fast food. There was a miscommunication there. I talked to them about it, and they were fine with it.
“I don’t think I could put on that much weight just eating fast food. I mean, I had 9 percent body fat. There’s no way eating fast food. They were happy with my diet. Obviously, I’m not going to be able to continue it during the season. It’s just impossible. I’m trying to at least maintain a healthy diet and still try to put on some weight.”
The key to his success this year, Franklin said, “is playing a game within a game, and making adjustments.”
It’s a philosophy that will eventually get Franklin to the major leagues. The question now is when.