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Mariners hoping Franklin sticks at second base

After a strong start last season, 22-year-old struggled at plate down stretch

SEATTLE -- Looking back at Nick Franklin's rookie season with the Mariners, two things were clear. One, the youngster has the potential to be an impact player in the Majors. And, two, he's still very young and was at times overmatched while learning on the job in a tough situation.

Franklin burst onto the scene in Seattle by hitting .302 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 29 games over his first month after being called up in late May to replace Dustin Ackley at second base. But over the remaining three months, the 22-year-old Franklin hit .194 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs in 73 games, finishing his season with a .225/.303/.382 slash line, with 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 369 at-bats.

As the Mariners head toward 2014, they'll need to decide if Franklin is ready to be the permanent answer at second and whether the experiment of moving Ackley to the outfield to open a spot for the youngster should continue.

New manager Lloyd McClendon will have Spring Training to sort through those questions. But for now, general manager Jack Zduriencik sounds like he's viewing Franklin as one of the building blocks going forward, while leaving the door open for offseason moves that could affect how things play out at several positions.

"With Nick, it's just growing pains," Zduriencik said. "He looked great right off the bat. He wound up hitting 12 home runs. But there are growing pains. You've got to remember, this guy was primarily a shortstop. Now, he's learning to play second base in the big leagues. I think all those things are factors.

"You're talking about August and September, when we're playing a lot of clubs that were in pennant races. We're playing Tampa [Bay], Oakland, Detroit. These clubs were right in the midst of it. This guy was thrown right in a pennant race, and he's a kid. I was happy with him. There are things he needs to work on, but I think you've got to be pleased with what you saw. I think he showed you one thing. He's talented."

There are some in the organization who felt Franklin fell in love with his early home runs and tried to be more of a power hitter than the line-drive gap-to-gap threat that suits him best. As a 6-foot-1, 180-pound switch-hitter, he has surprising pop.

But 113 strikeouts in 102 games was a red flag that Franklin was either overswinging or overmatched, or both, as Major League pitchers found ways to attack him after his initial success.

"In the beginning, I felt like I was just being myself," Franklin said at season's end. "And I think as the year progressed, I started to struggle a little bit. I knew I'd go through it, but it was just a learning experience. It's something you're going to have to go through. Everybody does. Sometimes it takes longer than others and sometimes it's short, but more importantly, it's just about getting out there every day and still playing hard."

Drafted as a high schooler out of Florida with the 27th pick in the first round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Franklin carries himself with a brash confidence somewhat reminiscent of a young Bret Boone. But that confidence began slipping away as Franklin's batting average started dropping, and a few fielding miscues only compounded that situation.

But Franklin seemed to pull out of that funk in the final month, feeling more comfortable again in the clubhouse and hitting .241 in September after an awful August, when he batted .107.

"The mental part of the game is probably the hardest thing," Franklin said. "But I feel like I've been through that rough patch now. And that's why you go back to the field every day and work to get better.

"More than anything, this year was a learning experience. I had a great time just learning from the coaches and being around these players. It's a great atmosphere. And all the other things that come with it, going to big league cities, playing against the best of the best, all those things were just great, all through the year."

Franklin played in the Arizona Fall League the past two offseasons, but he was given the winter off this year to rest and recuperate. He'll be a year older and wiser when the Mariners return to Peoria, Ariz., in February, a few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.

Whether Franklin is immediately penciled back in as the starting second baseman or if Seattle will make moves that could affect that situation remains to be seen. Ackley is another moving part in that scenario as Zduriencik goes about bolstering his outfield and finding the best mix for McClendon.

The general manager isn't ready yet to lock in on Ackley's defensive situation, knowing things could change in the coming months. While Franklin's hot start tailed off in the second half, Ackley turned his season around and led the Mariners in hitting at .304 after the All-Star break.

Ackley's revival was another reminder that it takes young players time to adjust at the Major League level. And it's best to write all plans in pencil, since things can change dramatically during a season, or during an offseason, for that matter.

Which is why Zduriencik wasn't locking himself in when asked whether Ackley will remain an outfielder going into Spring Training.

"We'll see," Zduriencik said. "Let's see what happens this winter. I think Ackley also has the potential to play second base. I think even when we ran him into second base late in the year, he did pretty good. But he did a nice job in center field, he did a nice job in left field.

"The one thing I always said about Dustin being out there, everything was a first. When he went to Triple-A, he played 20 games or so in the outfield and now he's in the big leagues. The first time he's in Houston, running up the flag pole out there, the first time he dove for a ball, the first time he went into left-center against the wall, he hadn't done any of that before. But I do think his breaks were good, his speed plays well out there. He doesn't have the great throwing arm, but we'll see."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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