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Phillies Mailbag: Nola’s Health, Franco, Nationals

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals
Aaron Nola appears ready to go (Scott Kane/Getty Images)

We are back with another Phillies mailbag.   We take your questions on Twitter each week and post them to Sports Talk Philly and 973espn.com.   We’ll talk about them on the Sports Bash with Mike Gill on 2:30 on Tuesday afternoons.

Is there any long term concern re: the health of Aaron Nola? Seems very injury prone. 
~Ron

Since last season the Phillies have seen starter Aaron Nola go down with injury two times.  The first was an elbow strain that caused Nola to miss the rest of the 2016 season.  Then, most recently, it was back discomfort for Nola.   Despite the two injuries, I do not think that the Phillies are too worried.

Last night, Nola went 6 1/3 innings for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs in his second rehab start, allowing two hits and a walk.  Nola struck out seven.  I do not see any reason why Nola cannot return to the Phillies starting rotation by the weekend.  But besides that, there is another reason the Phillies might be very confident in Nola’s ability.

The Phillies have reportedly made it known that starter Jeremy Hellickson is available in a trade.   This tells us a couple things:  First, the team seems happy if Nola sub Nick Pivetta stuck around and pitched in the starting rotation.  Second, the Phillies probably would not make a move if they felt that Nola was not ready to return to the starting rotation and pitch.

Any injury is framed by how the Phillies are in their rebuilding plan.  Maybe last season Nola might have returned if the Phillies were in playoff contention.  Maybe this soreness would have led the Phillies to have Nola make a start with the Phillies tonight instead of Triple-A last night.

Mostly, Nola’s two injuries are completely unrelated.  If we saw a second occurrence of an elbow issue, I might be worried.  But, Nola’s elbow appears to be just fine.  The Phillies appear to be confident in this.

Any long term concern with Franco, re: ability to adjust?
~Max

The Phillies, like many Phillies fans, are probably frustrated by the play of third baseman Maikel Franco.   So far in 2017, Franco is batting just .209 with five home runs and an OPS at .634.   This could be a combination of two things: a flaw in Franco’s swing, and a matter of Franco’s own confidence.  And, maybe the Phillies had higher hopes for Franco than he actually is.

The Phillies have mostly used Franco as their third hitter and cleanup hitter since he took third base away from Cody Asche in 2015.  But is Franco really that type of hitter?   That conclusion was reached after a 2015 in which Franco hit 14 home runs and batted .280 for an otherwise offense-less Phillies.  In 2016 Franco hit 25 home runs and drove in 88, but his batting average fell to .255.   In 2017 Franco became the team’s cleanup hitter and has regressed further.

Ryan Lawrence of Philly Voice spoke to Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs over the weekend in Washington.  Stairs says he has found a flaw with Franco’s swing and that he might be “fighting himself”.   Stairs says that he thinks that Franco’s hands have gotten too high over the last month or so.

Lawrence also points out that Franco’s batting average on balls in play is just .208.  That means that Franco is indeed making contact, but might be considered “unlucky”.  A batting average on balls in play is often around .300 or so.  That means that Franco’s average might level out somewhat.

The Phillies did move Franco as low as sixth in the batting order to help take some pressure off.  Perhaps the reality is that the sixth spot is the right place for a player like Franco.   When the rebuild dust settles, maybe a big name free agent bats third and another prospect rises high enough and hits fourth.   There’s nothing wrong with having a slick fielding third baseman batting sixth.

Had Franco arrived in better circumstances, such as the Phillies having a true Major League lineup, maybe he could have fallen into a better situation.  The Phillies will keep working with Franco to get the most out of him for now.  When they’re ready to win, the pressure may be less for Franco.

What do you make of the Nationals series so far this year?
~Roger

“Why do the Phillies always play the Nationals?”, my mother-in-law asked me on Mother’s Day.   She’s got a good point: the Phillies and Nationals have played each other more than any other two teams in baseball have played each other.   The Phillies are just 35 games into the season and have played the Nationals 12 times.  That represents 34% of the games.

The Phillies were so close to splitting those 12 games.  Pat Neshek’s perfect streak had to end sometime.  Outfielder Michael A. Taylor (not to be confused with the former Phillies prospect) did not exactly time the Neshek pitch right, and it just happened to hit the foul pole in Sunday’s nightcap.   They were close to the point of inches.

I think that Nationals series was actually rather encouraging for the Phillies.  I think we saw that Nick Pivetta has his moments and that he has some real potential, despite falling apart in the fifth inning.   I think we saw a resiliency in the Phillies who kept going after the Nationals bullpen to the point that you never felt the Phillies were out of the game.

We saw just how tough the Nationals middle of the batting order is, with Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman all in a row, with a really good player in Anthony Rendon behind him.

The Phillies are going to face a limping Texas Rangers team next, missing Cole Hamels to injury, then the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Phillies will face a red hot Colorado Rockies before the cooling Cincinnati Reds come to town.  When the Phillies face these teams, they might get into a bit of a more regular stretch.  Hopefully in this time, the Phillies pitching will be able to get into a groove, as none of these lineups are as potent as the Nationals.

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