Worthy competitors: Franklin, Miller battling to the end
Mariners prospects driving each other in good-natured, but intense, duel for SS job
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Spring Training opened five weeks ago, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said he had no preconceived notions on the shortstop competition between Nick Franklin and Brad Miller and would let the two battle things out on the field.
Now, with just two weeks until Opening Day, the new skipper is still evaluating, still learning and still making up his mind about the two prized prospects, neither of whom has blinked yet in the day-to-day duel.
"They are playing well," McClendon said. "I think it's going to continue. We've got two quality individuals that are very capable of playing the position. Nick was under the weather a little and had to battle back a little, but he's played well, and so has the Chicken Man. They've done fine. So we'll see what happens."
The Chicken Man? Miller, the incumbent starting shortstop, has drawn numerous references in his short career to a gangly running style that is further enhanced by his throwback high-socks look.
The 24-year-old from Clemson University takes it all in stride, albeit a stride that comes with a lot of moving parts.
"He said that [the other] night, too," Miller said with a laugh. "We were at a dinner, and he's like, 'Yeah, Chicken Legs, Crazy Legs.' But, shoot, whatever he wants to go with. I hadn't heard the Chicken Man, that's a new one. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I've been called a lot of goofy stuff, so it's all good."
The competition has been good as well. The two shortstops are longtime friends. Though Miller is two years older, both grew up in Orlando, Fla., and played together on several select All-Star teams during their youth.
Last year, they teamed again in the middle of Seattle's infield, Franklin taking over at second base for a struggling Dustin Ackley in late May and Miller replacing Brendan Ryan at shortstop a month later. But the $240 million signing of second baseman Robinson Cano this offseason displaced Franklin and pushed him back to the shortstop position, where he was drafted out of high school in the first round in 2009.
Franklin has looked comfortable at that position all spring, with good reason.
"I think people don't realize I've played there all my life," Franklin said. "Second base was only because that's where I was put last year. I've played every position on the field now, really, except center field and right."
That includes catching, which Franklin did as a high school freshman until moving into the infield. But the issue now is about shortstop, and one of the two youngsters is going to win that job in the coming days.
Miller has put up better numbers so far this spring, hitting .367/.441/.800 in 11 games, with two triples, three home runs and seven RBIs in 30 at-bats.
Franklin has hit .276/.364/.483 in 10 games, with three doubles, a home run and five RBIs. But those are small sample sizes, obviously, and Franklin also played through a flu-like virus last week that has hit several players.
Both have been solid defensively as well, with the occasional spectacular play. Miller snagged a hard shot up the middle on Friday night against the Rockies and executed a gorgeous backhand flip to start a double play, drawing an excited fist pump from Felix Hernandez on the mound.
The next day, Franklin answered against the Giants with a full-out dive to snare a ball to his left and flipped to second from his belly. And that's the way it's been all spring -- point, counterpoint, as the two have alternated games from the start of camp.
The two sit side by side in the Mariners' spring clubhouse, just as they did last year at Safeco Field. They know what is at stake, but they certainly haven't let it change their relationship. When someone told Miller to enjoy the 45-minute bus ride to Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday, Franklin quickly chipped in from nearby.
"Nobody told me to enjoy my trip to Tempe last week," Franklin playfully growled.
"Don't read anything into it," responded a grinning Miller, parroting the advice both have heard over and over regarding how to deal with the inevitable comparisons.
But it's impossible to ignore the obvious. Before long, one of these youngsters will be told he's the starting shortstop and the other likely will return to Triple-A Tacoma to continue working and waiting for another chance.
"Anytime you come into spring, when is it not competitive?" Franklin said. "This spring is nothing really any different. We're just having fun, picking each other up and going from there.
"You obviously hear it. It's human nature, and you hear stuff. That's natural. But at the same time, it's one of those things you can't control. And it's really none of my business what goes on. This is my career, so all I can do is control how I perform."
Miller has said from the start that he sees the competition not between him and Franklin, but between them and opposing teams. The two of them are pulling on the same uniform each day, going out and doing their morning work with new infield coach Chris Woodward, then taking turns playing shortstop in Cactus League games.
"It's been good," Miller said. "We're both working hard. And it's been good with Woody. I'm not saying we haven't before, but we're taking our defense seriously and taking a lot of pride in it. We're getting some good work in here."
McClendon hasn't ruled out keeping both on his final 25-man roster, though the likelihood is the organization will want whoever isn't selected to keep playing every day and staying ready in Tacoma rather than filling a utility role that seems destined for veteran Willie Bloomquist.
"I'm not sure," McClendon said after an initial hesitation. "We'll see how it all plays out."
Franklin has been oft-mentioned in trade rumors this spring, but both players have Minor League options available. Given that an injury anywhere in the infield could quickly change the entire dynamic of the situation, and that few teams go through a 162-game season without changes, organizational depth is important.
Which is exactly why the two youngsters are just going about their own business, knowing the business side of baseball is out of their control.
"Anything is possible from here on out," Franklin said. "You never know until it actually happens. We just have to go out there and play."