CLEARWATER, Fla. - Maikel Franco homered Monday for the third time this spring. His blast left Spectrum Field in a hurry, smacking against the brick wall of the bullpen behind the left-field wall.

But it is not the home runs that has the attention of manager Pete Mackanin. Instead, it is Franco's improved approach at the plate and the batter's discipline so far to work deep counts. That will be what determines if this is the season Franco develops into a legitimate threat in the middle of the lineup, not a few home runs in February.

"That's a good sign for what's to come from him," Mackanin said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him continue that approach. I think he's going to be working towards a good year."

Franco has worked this spring with hitting coach Matt Stairs, who is guiding Franco to think "gap to gap." The Phillies want Franco to be patient, wait for the right pitch and drive it somewhere between left and right center.

"He's been sticking with that very well," Mackanin said. "The fact that he's been going into deep counts is, I think, a result of him trying to stay up the middle and be more selective. He's certainly getting results, and that's more important."

Knapp at first

Andrew Knapp continues to work at first base, which will only improve his chances of making the team as the backup catcher. Knapp played the final four innings of Monday's game at first base.

The Phillies lack a backup for first baseman Tommy Joseph and catcher Cameron Rupp. Knapp may have to fill both of those roles.

"Knapp looks fine at first base," Mackanin said. "It's early, so I haven't seen enough to have a real good judgment, but I know that he's played there before. He looks like he can handle first base."

Extra bases

The Phillies will start Clay Buchholz on Wednesday against Baltimore, Vince Velasquez on Thursday against Tampa Bay and Aaron Nola on Thursday against Toronto. That will mark the first starts of the five pitchers projected to be in the starting rotation. . . . Mackanin lauded Pedro Beato after the righthander retired the three batters he faced in the ninth inning. Beato struck out two.

mbreen@phillynews.com

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