- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) - Maikel Franco finishes another impressive round of batting practice, walks over to sign a baseball for a kid in a Yankees jersey and then jogs out to left field to shag flies. He jokes around with teammates while young Phillies fans holler his name and ends the morning by stopping to sign more autographs on his way to the clubhouse.

The 23-year-old third baseman is quite comfortable as the face of the franchise’s rebuild.

“When I see and hear so many fans calling my name, it’s a great feeling,” Franco said Sunday. “I feel really good. I feel excited. Two years ago, it wasn’t the same. I’m in a good situation. I’m thankful the fans support me and every year I want to be better and do everything I can to win and improve.”

Franco is coming off an excellent rookie season cut short by a broken left wrist. He batted .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in only 80 games. Franco earned strong consideration for NL Rookie of the Year before new teammate Jeremy Hellickson hit him with a fastball on the wrist in August, forcing him to miss six weeks.

Franco’s wrist has healed and he’s off to an outstanding start in spring training. He’s batting .385 (5 for 13) with two homers.

“I feel more comfortable because I know coming in when I see the lineup, I’ll play every day,” he said. “Knowing that, I just want to have fun and play the game.”

Franco was Philadelphia’s top hitting prospect this time last year, but began the season in Triple-A in part for service time reasons. Once he came up in May, he proved he’ll be a fixture in the middle of the lineup for years.

“He’ll get better and better,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

The rebuilding Phillies are far from the team that dominated the NL East between 2007-11 and won the 2008 World Series. Only Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz remain from that group.

Franco is expected to anchor the offense and help lead the Phillies back to contention. He certainly has All-Star potential, and the greatest third baseman in club history, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, predicted Franco will win an MVP award during his career.

“I know people talk about that, but I just try to do the best I can and help my team, be prepared every day and play the game the right way and have fun,” Franco said.

The Phillies signed Franco as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2010. He had a breakout season with Class A Clearwater in 2013 and continued his progress that summer at Double-A Reading, where he hit .339 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs in 69 games.

Franco earned a promotion to the majors in September 2014 and it won’t be long before his No. 7 jersey becomes the most popular one at the ballpark.

“I did a lot of hard work in the minor leagues and I want to keep doing hard work now that I’m here and try to improve every day,” Franco said.

The Phillies have revamped their farm system through recent drafts and several trades. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, center fielder Roman Quinn, outfielders Nick Williams and Cornelius Randolph and catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp are a big part of the team’s future. They already have young talent in the majors. Outfielders Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr, infielders Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez join Franco in the lineup.

“It’s a young team and everybody has to do something to try to win the game every day,” Franco said. “We have good talent here.”

Franco already has built a solid rapport with his teammates and has embraced a leadership role.

“I like to be a good friend with everybody, have good communication with everybody, have fun, enjoy the game and bring energy every day,” he said.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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