There have been whispers about Nick Franklin‘s eventual need to move off shortstop for most of his professional career. In each of the six seasons since the Seattle Mariners made him a first round pick in 2009, Franklin has played at least a few games at second base to go along with his time at shortstop. In 2012, he appeared in 61 games at the keystone versus 73 at shortstop and by the next season, he was known throughout baseball as a second baseman.
Nick Franklin came up to the big leagues with the Mariners and made 90 of his 92 starts at second base. The reason he did so was as much about the players around him than any deficiency in his defensive game. Dustin Ackley‘s collapse created an opening at second base, and Brad Miller was a better fielding shortstop that the Mariners wanted to see. When they added in Franklin’s previous defensive concerns, it made perfect sense for Seattle to put him at the keystone full-time.
In 2014, after the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to supplant him, Franklin went back to playing second base and shortstop nearly evenly. Between the Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays organizations, he played in 51 games at second and 41 at short while also seeing limited time at third base, right field, and left field. The M’s aimed to make Franklin more versatile, but they never gave up on his as a shortstop. That fact is critical as we consider his objective with the Rays right now.
Nick Franklin heads to spring training as the favorite for the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting shortstop position. How did we get to this point? It took trades of both Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar plus the signing of Asdrubal Cabrera, a veteran shortstop whose defensive has deteriorated enough that the Rays would rather move him off the position. Franklin also needed Hak-Ju Lee, to whom he ceded shortstop at Triple-A Durham, to be coming off a disastrous year in the minor leagues.
Franklin is attempting to be one of just four starting shortstops in the big leagues next who was ever specifically moved from shortstop to another position at some point in the past. The others are Jhonny Peralta, Wilmer Flores, and Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez only qualifies on a technicality–when he came from Cuba, he was a good defensive shortstop who deferred to Orlando Cabrera for one year before moving to the position full-time.
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We can also talk about Jean Segura, Jose Ramirez, and Alexi Amarista, who were primary second baseman in the minor leagues, but they really have a different story. They proved to their organizations that you can also play a more difficult position. Players like Franklin and Flores, on the other hand, were told that they weren’t good enough, but then their teams changed their minds and said “no, you can play shortstop!” Their teams either flip-flopped or were desperate to find a viable starting option.
The good news in regards to Franklin, though, is that scouts were never as negative on him as they were on players like Peralta and Flores. A quick look at the Baseball America archives demonstrates that quite well. Here’s what they said about Franklin.
"“Franklin has solid actions and range at shortstop, though some scouts think his fringy arm will make him a second baseman.” – 2011 Prospect Handbook“Franklin’s defense draws mixed reviews. His range and actions work at shortstop, but some evaluators feel his instincts and fringy arm would fit better at second base.” – 2012 Prospect Handbook“He’s an adequate defender at shortstop, but he may fit better at second base because his range, hands and arm are all average.” – 2013 Prospect Handbook"
On the whole, Franklin would almost certainly be a better fielder at second base than shortstop. As recently as 2013, however, Baseball America said that Franklin would be fine if he did need to stick at short. They said quite different things about Peralta and Flores.
"“Because they have a wealth of middle infielders, the Indians sent Peralta to the Arizona Fall League to play third base. His ultimate position has yet to be determined, though his thick build probably will mean he’ll have to move off shortstop…He’s steady defensively, with excellent hands and plenty of arm for shortstop or third base. His range is fringe average at best and he’s a below-average runner who lacks quick reactions to the ball.” – 2003 Prospect Handbook“Flores lacks first-step quickness and is a below-average runner (4.6 seconds to first base), so he doesn’t profile as a shortstop down the line.” – 2008 Prospect Handbook“He has a plus arm and soft hands at shortstop. Flores is a below-average runner with a slow first step and below-average range. He has a thick lower half and is expected to move to third base or an outfield corner as he fills out.” – 2010 Prospect Handbook“As he fills out his lean frame he could develop 20-homer power, which would be special at shortstop-but scouts give Flores no chance to stay up the middle. He’s a well below-average runner with heavy feet and substandard range.” – 2012 Prospect Handbook"
Franklin was never described as badly as that last line about Flores–we can say that for certain. Franklin and Peralta were considered questionable at shortstop for entirely divergent reasons, a mediocre arm for Franklin and poor range for Peralta, but for whatever reason, scouts seemed higher on Franklin’s ability at short. When we compare Franklin to Peralta and Flores, it has to make us more optimistic about his chances.
The Tampa Bay Rays can say that while Wilmer Flores needs to overcome years and years of negative reviews at shortstop, Franklin simply needs to live up to his scouting reports. We know he won’t be anything near a Gold Glover, but “adequate” is all that Franklin needs to be defensively and he has the talent to get there. Expect Franklin to be solid defensively this spring and show the Rays enough to be their starting shortstop.