As Philadelphia sports fans, we wait. We hope. We curse. We reminisce. When not one team has won a playoff round in 20 combined seasons, it’s all we can do.
The 2017 Phillies, alas, will make that 21 combined. I’m not telling you something you don’t know. But the franchise has down-the-road expectations, stemming from a stocked farmed system, the second-youngest roster in the majors and an ownership group that vows to spend billions when the time is right.
Many things have to go correctly for the rebirth to occur. Above all, two players must emerge as stars — Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera.
Both have flashed greatness. Both have shown an ability to confound.
Franco’s mighty half-season as a 22-year-old rookie in 2015 sparked projections of superstardom. His power and contact skills had everyone writing him in as the offensive centerpiece for the Phils’ next generation.
Then came last season. Half of Franco’s swings ended with his helmet popping off his head. He lunged, swung from the heels, seemed to close his eyes hoping to connect. His OPS fell more than 100 points.
Franco recently conceded he created his own problems in 2016 through internal pressure — a feeling he had to carry the offense alone. New hitting coach Matt Stairs made Franco a special project this spring, aiming to persuade the now-24-year-old to stay focused and stop giving away at-bats.
“It helps that Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders are hitting around him,” Stairs told Leslie Gudel. “He knows he doesn’t have to be the guy carrying the offense. He told me he’s tired of hitting weak grounders to third base. He’s in a good spot now.”
We’ll know early if Stairs is getting through. Last season, Franco swung at 52 percent of the pitches he faced — more than a third of which were out of the strike zone. If he shows patience in April, he has a genuine chance to re-emerge as a star.
Similarly, centerfielder Herrera has mixed moments of brilliance with capricious impatience. He was an All-Star based on his .874 OPS the first two months last season. His inconsistency after that (.735 OPS) so confounded manager Pete Mackanin that Herrera was occasionally benched for the likes of Peter Bourjos.
The Phils signed Herrera to a five-year, $30.5 million extension in December. The 25-year-old entered spring training saying he has an eye on being the first Phillie to win a batting title since Richie Ashburn in 1958. And, like Franco, he admitted the need to mature, to keep his head in every game.
Talk is cheap. But it’s promising to hear Franco and Herrera vow to alter their approach. Both have the ability to be nucleus players as the Phils move forward.
Here’s hoping so. For all the promising kids playing at Lehigh this season, for all the speculation that superstars like Manny Machado and Mike Trout may wind up in red pinstripes, the formula only works if Franco and Herrera hold up their end of the bargain.