CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Manny Machado may have spent the first week of spring training purchasing customized baby shoes for his niece, but he still remains in the hunt -- perhaps even the favorite -- to open the season as the Phillies’ third baseman.
But as free agency seeps into spring training for a second straight year, the Phillies are preparing for the chance that Machado does not end up in Clearwater. Manager Gabe Kapler said Wednesday that the team will hold a competition at third base between Scott Kingery and the incumbent Maikel Franco. That competition would become null if the Phillies sign Machado.
“There is some competition at third base, and that’s a conversation that I’ll have with Mikey and I’ll have with Scott,” Kapler said.
Franco finished last season with a team-leading .270 average and .780 OPS, which was the team’s second-best mark. But he was cast off last summer in favor of J.P. Crawford, missed most of September with a shoulder injury, and seemed to fall out of favor with the team’s front office. Take away July -- when Franco batted .330 with a .971 OPS -- and his season was pedestrian.
Kingery struggled last season as he played every position except catcher and first base, with most of his time at shortstop. He batted .226 with .267 on-base percentage, which was the fourth-lowest mark in the majors. Kingery said he reworked his swing this offseason and learned from his rookie year. The Phillies invested $24 million into Kingery before last season after seeing how well he hit in the minors. One rough season was not enough to shake their confidence.
Kapler said in December that the plan for Kingery this season was to move around the diamond just as he did last season. But that outlook changed in two months. Kingery played 10 games last season at third base, but it was enough for the Phillies to think he can compete for the everyday role.
“The way I look at it is, it will take some getting used to different positions but if you’re an infielder, it’s a ground ball,” Kingery said. “You’re just going to have to get used to the angles and throwing angles and where you’re supposed to be on cover plays. If that’s where I’m going to have to play most of the time, I’m going to have to get better there every day and get ready to go.”
The start of spring training has been as much about the players who are not here than it is about the players who are. That is what makes a competition at third base -- a position the team is trying to upgrade -- so difficult. The Phillies still expect to end this spring training with either Machado or outfielder Bryce Harper on their roster. But until then, they will prepare with the players they have.
“Whether or not we make any additions, we feel really good about our club,” Kapler said. “If we do end up with one of the free agents that are out there, we just get that much better and we get that much deeper. I don’t think we have to try to not think about it but we can acknowledge it, know that it’s there, and want it. We discuss it, we get excited about it, and I think that’s a healthy thing.”
Franco and Kingery both seemed primed for a competition by the way they reported to spring training. Franco slimmed down and lost 10 pounds. Kingery bulked up, added 15 pounds of muscle, and is playing at the heaviest weight of his career. The competition is on, but the third man in the race could be on his way.