As it stands right now, Nick Franklin is set to receive regular playing time at one of the two middle infield positions for the Tampa Bay Rays. Given Asdrubal Cabrera‘s struggles defensively in recent years, he may even be the favorite to be the Rays’ starting shortstop. Franklin only surfaced in the majors last September after the Rays acquired him in the David Price trade at the deadline, but it certainly appears that his time has come.
The main reason the Rays would consider sending Nick Franklin back to Triple-A, though, is his weakness against left-handed pitching. Franklin, a switch-hitter, has a .218/.289/.389 line against righties in 350 major league plate appearances, but that goes down to just .201/.289/.284 in 152 PA’s against lefties. Essentially, Franklin had the same approach from both sides of the plate but significantly less power when he batted righty versus left-handers.
The difference is even more stark when we go back to his minor league time. Since 2011, Franklin hit to a .300/.384/.476 triple-slash against right-handed pitching that went down to just .228/.301/.313 when he turned around to face lefties. Baseball America first mentioned the possibility of him abandoning his righty swing as early as 2011. Why should he keep it when he was so much more productive from the left side?
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If Franklin turns out to be simply a platoon player, there would be many worse things for the Rays. Franklin could man shortstop against right-handed pitching and then, against lefties, Cabrera could slide to short with Logan Forsythe at second base. He would be the larger part of a platoon, and given that he would be doing so as a middle infielder rather than say a corner outfielder like Matt Joyce, he could still be an extremely valuable player.
On the other hand, are the Rays really going to seal Franklin’s fate as someone who can’t hit left-handed pitching? People have criticized the Rays for the way they handled Joyce, but he wasn’t in the big leagues to stay until June of 2010, when he was about to turn 26 years of age. Franklin is about to turn 24, and the Rays have more time to put him in the minors if they so desire.
Joyce is an especially interesting case to bring up given how similar his early-career playing time was to Franklin’s. Joyce appeared in 92 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2008 and was quite productive, but he still appeared in just 11 MLB games in 2009. Franklin, meanwhile, appeared in 102 games in 2013 and just 28 last season. Would the Rays consider starting Joyce in the minor leagues like they did with Joyce in 2010?
The issue with that plan, though, is the Durham Bulls’ middle infield for 2015. It is not as though Franklin could go down there and easily become a regular between shortstop and second base. The Bulls are currently set to have Hak-Ju Lee and Ryan Brett, two of their top prospects, at those two spots, and the Rays certainly won’t be taking playing time away from them.
The Rays could bend over backwards to make the situation work. After all, Franklin gained some experience in the outfield last season, and if the Rays put Franklin in a Ben Zobrist-esque utility role at Durham, he would be able to get his at-bats. On the other hand, he would need to learn how to hit solely left-handed while also acclimating himself to a variety of positions. Is that really the best idea?
At the end of the day, unless the Tampa Bay Rays acquire a legitimate starting shortstop in a trade between now and the start of the season, Franklin will almost surely start the season on the team’s roster. That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that the Rays need to have him stay a switch-hitter and take the risk that he will never hit lefties. They have an entire spring training to begin the conversion process if they deem that to be their best course of action.
Then, given that Nick Franklin would not be playing much against lefties anyway, the Rays could have a clear opportunity to see if he could fare better against them batting from the same side. On those days when he isn’t starting, he could take batting practice against a lefty and try to get comfortable versus such pitchers. If the early returns look promising enough, he could get at-bats against them in blowouts and just maybe get the occasional start versus a lefty
That situation would admittedly not help Franklin as much as more time at Triple-A, but given the need the Rays have for Franklin on their roster and the lack of playing time available for him at Durham, it looks like their best option. Shane Victorino in 2013 is a precedent of a switch-hitter giving up one side in the middle of a season, and Franklin would have an entire spring training to work with as well.
If the Tampa Bay Rays did not believe that Nick Franklin could hit right-handed pitching, this would all be a moot point. However, given his strong Triple-A performance the last three years, his solid 2013 season with the Mariners, and the tools he has to back up his numbers, he is worthy of a chance. It is annoying that Franklin looks capable against one side and not the other, but the Rays’ best option is to put him on their roster and see what he can do.