PEORIA, Ariz. — Nick Franklin was with his dad in Florida on that fateful December day when news broke the Mariners had signed Robinson Cano.
“I was excited, because I knew coming into spring training I was going to be able to learn from one of the best guys playing baseball,’’ he said Wednesday. “At least top five in the game. I think that’s awesome, and I’m glad we signed him.”
Franklin’s secondary reaction was more realistic: He knew immediately that his days as the Mariners’ starting second baseman were at an end, after just one partial season.
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“There’s no chance … there’s 240 reasons why I wouldn’t play second,’’ he said.
That’s 240 as in $240 million, the Mariners’ whopping investment in Cano. And now Franklin, just 22, is at a crossroads. Where he ends up will be one of the most intriguing story lines of this spring camp, with seemingly three options:
• Franklin will win what manager Lloyd McClendon portrayed Wednesday as a wide-open battle with Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job;
• He’ll go down to Class AAA Tacoma and start the season as the Rainiers’ shortstop; or,
• He’ll be traded to another team with a more immediate role for the former first-round draft pick (No. 27 overall in 2009), who has been a rising star in the Mariners’ organization.
Starting with the final possibility, Franklin said he’s more or less put the constant trade rumors out of his mind.
“I mean, as far as I know, I’ve been traded 20 times, and I’m still here,’’ he said. “It doesn’t really bother me at all. All I can do is control what I can and go out and play the game.”
Franklin, in fact, was actually traded once before, packaged with Taijuan Walker last winter in an agreed-upon swap for Arizona outfielder Justin Upton. But Upton exercised his no-trade clause to veto the deal.
“That was one of the times, but I’m still here,’’ Franklin said. “But more than anything, until it happens, there’s nothing really set in stone. There’s a lot of rumors, but who can actually back it up when it will happen?”
So Franklin will leave it to his family to check out the internet trade rumors — they let him know, he said, when his name pops up — and go about his primary business: Trying to win the shortstop job over Miller.
“We’re both friends, but at the same time, when we step on that field, we have to compete,’’ Franklin said. “That’s what we have to do, and let the best man win.”
While it may be portrayed as a position switch, Franklin views shortstop as a return to his original, lifelong position. It was only recently that he was converted to second base (coinciding with the transformation of Dustin Ackley to the outfield and the emergence of Miller as a viable shortstop candidate).
“Shortstop’s really my natural position,’’ he said. “Being at second was a little outside of it. The big thing with me, I grew up playing shortstop my whole life. It’s nothing new to me. I’m excited about it.”
McClendon said he told Franklin, “This is a new chapter in your career. One door’s closing, and another one’s opening. It’s an opportunity for you. I’m going into this with my eyes wide open. You have the opportunity to compete for the shortstop position, and I wish you the best of luck. I said I don’t have any preconceived notions, and I mean that.”
The notion McClendon does have is that he wants a shortstop that can make all the routine plays, along the lines of Jhonny Peralta in Detroit.
“He wasn’t flashy, but everything that was hit to him, he caught the ball and threw it over there,’’ McClendon said. “Everyone complained he didn’t have the range. But you knew when the ball was hit to him, he was going to get an out. I think that’s important. I’m not looking for a flashy play. I’m looking for a guy that’s very sound fundamentally, makes the plays consistently, and provides offense.”
To shore up his defense, Franklin had the invaluable opportunity over the winter to work out for a few days with Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. Franklin’s training partner, Dee Gordon of the Dodgers (son of former major-league pitcher Tom “Flash” Gordon), made the introduction, and Franklin soaked up the knowledge.
“That was huge for me, just working with a Hall of Famer,’’ Franklin said. “He had a lot to say, and I had a lot to listen. It was awesome. He kind of fixed a few things.”
Franklin’s rookie season was a mixed bag. He had moments of offensive explosion, finishing with 12 homers, 20 doubles and 45 runs batted in, in just 369 at-bats. But a horrendous August, in which Franklin batted .107 (9 for 84, with 31 strikeouts), reduced his final average to .225.
“I tried to play with a couple of injuries,’’ Franklin said. “I probably shouldn’t have, but I didn’t want to be a downer. I wanted to have respect from my teammates and go out and play as hard as I could.”
Particularly damaging was a knee injury Franklin said reduced him to about 60 percent efficiency, hampering him both at the plate and in the field — not to mention the mental toll.
“I was getting hurt, and things weren’t going well, so it was just a combination of everything, probably a snowball effect,’’ he said. “That’s on me. I think coming into this season, I might have a better mindset. I’ve already been through it and I know what to do if I ever go through it again. Because it’s going to happen. It’s baseball, and not everybody is Miguel Cabrera.”
Or Robinson Cano, for that matter. And because the Mariners have the real one, Nick Franklin’s baseball life has taken a sharp turn.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry