Finding playing time for Nick Franklin

 Nearly one month after being sent down to Triple-A after a brief stint with the big league club, Nick Franklin finds himself back in a Seattle Mariner uniform once again after Corey Hart hit the disabled list. The top prospect has already managed to make his presence felt in the lineup during Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers, going 2-3 with a run scored and a run batted in. The right-hander was also hit by a pitch and stole a base while taking Hart’s place as the designated hitter role. As we heard the last time Franklin was called up, if he’s going to stick around in the majors, he’s going to be playing often and sitting on the bench as little as possible. This time around, there probably won’t be much of a problem with slotting the youngster in the lineup everyday so long as he’s producing.

Hart was officially placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a grade-two hamstring strain and is expected to be out for four to six weeks. It’s an unfortunate case for the right-hander who has seen some struggles so far during his tenure as a Mariner, but barring a setback, he should be able to return to the lineup by the All-Star break. Perhaps the optimist’s approach to the injury is that it finally allows Seattle an opportunity to bring up the the owner of a .376/.481/.633 minor league line this year and immediately place him into the lineup –more on Brad Miller and the shortstop situation shortly. Franklin is expected to see some time at shortstop, outfield, DH, and possibly second base if Robinson Cano is assuming designated hitter duties.

Much has been made of Miller’s struggles so far in 2014, and many have called for Franklin’s call-up and a demotion for the incumbent to come in short order. The M’s seem willing to let their struggling shortstop try and work his way out of it — at least for a little while longer — but there’s no doubt that having Franklin on the active roster makes the possibility of Miller seeing less playing time and a possible demotion all that more realistic should the struggles continue. Certainly there’s the potential that Franklin’s presence alone could help Miller snap out of his funk considering his everyday job could be on the line here, and that’d be especially true of Franklin continues to hit. Miller currently has just two hits alongside five walks in his last seven games which should be considered a positive, but there’s no doubt that the pressure is rising as each day passes.

How much longer Miller will hold on to the starting job is unknown at this point, but one has to wonder when the club’s breaking point is with him will be. He’s reportedly been doing all the right things as far as most can tell — extra batting practice, one-on-one time with hitting coach Howard Johnson, and taking extra reps at short — but things simply haven’t translated into on-field production. If it’s a case where the problem is between the ears, it only gets more difficult to diagnose the problem and find some sort of solution. But, it is easy to forget that the calendar has yet to strike June so there’s certainly plenty of time for Miller to figure things out and start playing like he was expected to when he won the job in the spring.

Although the M’s have downplayed the possibility of transitioning Franklin into an everyday outfield role the same way they did with Dustin Ackley, it may be the most realistic long term solution if the club plans to keep him in blue and teal beyond this season. The 23-year old Franklin has made a handful of minor league appearances in the outfield this season and started a game in his previous big league cameo, so it’s likely he’ll have an opportunity to start there in the next week. There’s no reason to break up the combination of James Jones and Michael Saunders at the top of the order unless necessary — the pair are also the club’s best defensive outfielders — which makes it possible that Franklin could start in left field with Ackley taking designated hitter duties for the game. The M’s are starting a stretch of 16 consecutive games, so it’s definitely possible that Saunders or Jones could receive an off-day during that period in which Franklin could slot in.

The last time Franklin was with the big league club he saw a start at second base with Cano as the club’s designated hitter so we can assume that’s a possibility over the next two weeks as well should the club wish to give their superstar a day off in the field.

It’s also worth noting that the club still has Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie on the roster so finding them some at bats here and there could be factors in how often Franklin plays as well. Of course Gillespie, 29, is essentially nothing more than organizational depth at this point and hasn’t produce very much in the opportunities he has gotten. Romero on the other hand has seen fairly regular playing time up to this point in the season and will likely get some time at DH during Hart’s absence as well given the glut of outfielders currently on the roster. In 29 games this season Romero owns a 67 wRC+ and has a pair of home runs under his belt, so his presence in the lineup isn’t likely a priority at this point.

Whatever the case may be, it’ll be an interesting next couple of weeks as the M’s lineup sees more fluctuation than usual. Considering Miller reached base twice and scored a run on Tuesday his odds of starting on Wednesday  have probably increased — although nothing is certain just yet — but it’s conceivable that he makes a start in the infield within the next week. Manager Lloyd McClendon described Franklin as “not a typical DH” so penciling him in as the regular designated hitter at the moment would be premature, although it would cause the least disruption to the lineup.

I would expect to see some sort of informal rotation through the DH spot over the next week or so as LMC feels out the best way to use his assortment of players and integrate Franklin into the lineup regularly. But it doesn’t appear to be as difficult to find the youngster plenty of opportunities to play this time around. It’s worth mentioning that Logan Morrison could be sent out on a rehab assignment as early as the end of the week and his impending return stands to crowd the roster further.

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Tyler Carmont

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