We all remember how valuable Ben Zobrist was for the Tampa Bay Rays. They may well have the second coming of Zobrist in Nick Franklin.
When the Tampa Bay Rays found themselves in the midst of their heyday, Ben Zobrist was a key part of the roster. A super utility player, Zobrist spent most of his time at either second or right, but also filled in virtually everywhere on the diamond. In fact, Zobrist redefined the utility player, leading to recognition for players like Brock Holt, who could play anywhere.
Since Zobrist was traded to Oakland, the Rays have been looking to replace him without success. Plyers like Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer all attempted to fill that same role, but have failed. However, the Rays may finally have found that player with Franklin.
Since joining the Rays, Franklin has played in both corner outfield positions, as well as at first, second, and short. He even pitched in a game in 2015, something that Zobrist has yet to do. However, during his time with the Rays, Franklin has posted a mediocre .227/.284/.388 batting line, appearing in only 115 games in the past three years.
After bouncing between the Majors and the minors, Franklin finally found success in the Majors last year. In 60 games, he produced a career best .270/.328/.443 batting line, hitting six home runs and stealing six bases. In that time, he made at least five appearances at first, second, short, right and left.
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It is easy to see where the improvement came from. Franklin had a career best 22% strikeout rate, making far more contact than he had at any other time in his Major League career. This led to a .325 batting average on balls in play, a number that actually could have been better. Of those balls that Franklin hit, only 20% were considered to be a line drive.
Even if his batting average on balls in play regresses, it is easy to imagine that Franklin will still produce at a similar clip. That line drive rate is likely to improve as well, given his 26% career mark. The key will be his improved ability to make contact, which fueled those improvements. As Franklin struck out in only 20.7% of his AAA plate appearances last year, and has a career 20.2% strikeout rate in 1410 minor league plate appearances, Franklin may have finally found a way to make those skills translate at the Major League level.
At just 26 years old heading into the 2017 season, Franklin has the potential be finally give the Rays the next Zobrist. His offensive production can help the Rays lineup, which was anemic at times last year. Likewise, his defensive versatility could open up a few more options for Kevin Cash and the coaching staff as they look to fill out the bench.
A former top prospect, Nick Franklin may finally be putting things together at the major league level. If so, the Tampa Bay Rays could have located their next Ben Zobrist.