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The wonder of Wander

The Rays 18-year-old prospect is considered the next great one, and he’s ready for the spotlight of a fast track to the majors.
Infielder Wander Franco posed for a portrait after a Tampa Bay Rays workout for prospects at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 5
Updated Mar. 5

PORT CHARLOTTE — Wander Franco spent the winter at home in the Dominican Republic like a lot of 17-year-olds: having buddies over, playing video games, going to the beach.

“Pretty much just tried to be a teenager,’’ he said. “Just kind of hang out and be a kid.’’

But several times, his two older brothers, both also named Wander (as is their dad), would deliver some news they’d seen on their phones that reminded he wasn’t just any kid.

Rankings of the top prospects were coming out, and Franco, after just a single pro season for the Rays at one of the lowest rungs of the minors, had soared to the top.

Baseball America ranked him the No. 4 prospect in the game. ESPN’s Keith Law put him third, behind only Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vlad Guerrero Jr., who are both ticketed for the majors this year. Fangraphs.com had Franco second overall.

“I’m very surprised,’’ Franco said Monday, with help from team translator Manny Navarro. “My manager from last year (at rookie-level Princeton, W. Va.) told me that what I did no one had really done before so that was an honor, and made me very proud to have that kind of a year in my first year out here in professional baseball.’’

What Franco did in dominating the Appalachian League was certainly impressive, arguably more so as the second youngest player, the equivalent of a high schooler who also was away from home for the first time in a country where he didn’t speak the language.

The smooth-swinging, switch-hitting shortstop posted a .351 average, .418 on-base percentage and 1.005 OPS over 61 games, rapped 85 hits (28 for extra bases), cobbled together 25-game hitting and 53-game on-base streaks and, notably, walked 27 times and struck out only 19. The combination of power and patience for the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder is rare, the hand speed off some charts.

“He can really hit,’’ said Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics, working his 45th year in the game. “There are not many players that I’ve come across in my career that hit like Wander Franco, especially at a young age. He has a really good bat-to-ball ratio. He just has the ability to hit a baseball. It’s special.’’

The Rays had an idea Wander Samuel Franco would be good — maybe not to this degree this quickly — when they invested $3.825 million to sign him atop the July 2017 international free agent class.

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Plus, he’s from a baseball family. Both brothers play pro ball, currently in the Giants system and having reached Class A, Wander Javier a third baseman, Wander Alexander a first baseman, as did their dad. And their uncles are the Aybar half-brothers, Erick and ex-Ray Willy. (Also, Franco grew up near Indians star Jose Ramirez, spending time working out with, and idolizing, him. Ramirez, in turn, raves about Franco potentially being better than him.)

That pedigree matters not just in talent, but also, the Rays are hoping, in perspective and maturity, especially given all the attention and accolades coming Franco’s way at a young age. Josh Hamilton and Delmon Young were once supposed to be the next great Rays, too.

“We worry extremely about all of our 17- and 18-year-olds because they’re just that,’’ Lukevics said. “You just never know day to day. We have everything under the sun to educate these players from life skills, language training, laws, how to act, how not to act. You name it, we have it. You just hope they all grasp it.

“He’s a fairly mature young man for his age. I could just see his background as being different than (others) his age from a Latin country. … He has some good bloodlines. And I’m sure he was schooled properly, so you see the maturation on him a little bit more than more.’’

Franco, who turned 18 Friday, is going to have to get used to being singled out by fans, media and opposing teams. He said his uncles and others have prepared him well, stressing discipline and respect for the game.

Since 2000, just 11 players have made their major league debuts before their 20th birthday, including former Rays outfielder B.J. Upton. Others on the list Felix Hernandez (Mariners), Bryce Harper (Nationals), Jurickson Profar (Rangers), Juan Soto (Nationals), Julio Urias (Dodgers), Dyland Bundy (Orioles), Wilson Betemit (Braves), Mike Trout (Angels), Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), Jose Reyes (Mets). Source: Baseball Reference. [Times files]

“Obviously as a teenager it is a lot of attention,’’ he said. “What I plan on doing is staying humble, just like my uncles taught me, trying to eliminate all the negative stuff people say about you and just be the person you are.’’

Franco seems to have a good handle, saying he is honored by the lofty praise and company on the prospect lists, flashing his braces in admitting it’s a little odd to be recognized away from the ballpark.

The hype is only going to increase on his fast track to the major leagues, with a hope, if not a goal, to make it as a teenager. So therefor, before the end of next season.

Assuming he starts this year at Class A Bowling Green, that would be quite an accelerated path, though it’s been done recently by a select few position players, including Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and the Upton brothers.

“It’s going to be up to the organization obviously,’’ Franco said. “I’m going to do everything I can to give 100 percent every time. If I can get up there in two years, then I’ll get up there in two years.’’

But if not by then, soon after.

Franco has had a bat in his hands since he was 5 years old (way back in 2006!). He spent all those days playing games in the dry river bed near their home, took thousands of swings (including as a 12-year-old against a pro pitcher) and listened to all the advice to get to the big leagues. And to be good when he got there.

“Since I was a kid I wanted to be a superstar,’’ he said. “So I’ve just got to stay humble and do what I need to do.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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