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With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the majors, the countdown begins for the Rays’ Wander Franco

Tampa Bay’s top prospect is following in the rather large footsteps Vladimir Guerrero Jr. left in the Midwest League.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco is baseball top prospect in the minor now that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been promoted to Toronto. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published May 1
Updated May 2

To borrow a phrase from a certain HBO series:

Wander is Coming

You know it, he knows it, the entire baseball world knows it. Now that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has hit the big leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays, all eyes are turning toward Rays prospect Wander Franco.

He is one month into his first full minor league season, and was just named the Midwest League’s Player of the Week. That’s even more impressive when you consider Franco is the youngest player in the league by a wide margin. He turned 18 in March, and the average age in the Midwest League is 21.

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“I saw Vlad in this league a couple of years ago so when I heard he was called up to Toronto, I asked (Franco) about it,’’ said Bowling Green manager Reinaldo Ruiz. “I said, “Vlad is in the big leagues now, so are you going to be the next big thing?’ He smiled and said, “Yeah.’’’

The early returns certainly look that way.

Franco is almost exactly the same age Guerrero was when he debuted in the Midwest League in 2017, and the first month of their Class A careers are strikingly similar.

But it’s not just about the batting average or the slugging percentage. It’s the details that boggle the mind. A recent Baseball America report points out that during a four-week stretch of nearly 70 at-bats, Franco swung and missed at only four pitches. Four. In four weeks.

Wander Franco, the Rays top prospect, played in the St. Petersburg International Baseball Series in March. DIRK SHADD | Times

He’ll take balls, he’ll take called strikes. He may even foul off some pitches. But when he swings, he’s making contact more than 90 percent of the time. Like last year, when he played with short-season Princeton in the Appalachian League, Franco has more walks than strikeouts at Bowling Green.

“The knowledge of the strike zone for an 18 year old is unbelievable,’’ Ruiz said. “He doesn’t swing at bad pitches, he gets himself in a good count, and when he does swing he makes contact.

“It’s a short, easy swing with a nice leg kick. He’s very smooth from both sides of the plate.’’

Oh yeah, he’s a switch-hitter.

And a shortstop.

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At this point, patience may be the greatest concern. That goes for the Rays, Franco and the rest of us. If his numbers remain gaudy – he’s got a combined .342 average with 14 homers in his first 316 minor-league at-bats – there will be pressure to continue promoting him at a fast pace.

And there’s nothing wrong with moving him through the minor leagues as quickly as his talents warrant, but there also has to be an acknowledgement that he’s still a teenager learning a new language.

He’s living in an apartment with Osmy Gregorio, 21, and Tony Pena, 21, both of whom, like Franco, are from the Dominican Republic and played with him in Princeton last year.

Ruiz said he occasionally drops in on players at their apartments to make sure they’re taking care of business away from the field, but said he encourages the older players to watch out for Franco.

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And while batting practice, baserunning and fielding drills are staples of his pre-game routine, Franco also meets with Ruiz daily to go over situations from the previous day’s games.

There is no hiding from the expectations that follow Franco like a shadow. With Guerrero and Fernando Tatis Jr. both making their big league debuts in the past month, it’s likely that Franco will be the top name on the next round of prospects lists.

Guerrero and Tatis made their big league debuts two years after playing in the Midwest League. Considering the Rays have generally been conservative about promotions, it’s hard to imagine seeing Franco in Tampa Bay before 2021.

MORE from John Romano

“He’s definitely very aware that everyone is watching him,’’ Ruiz said. “He sees it everywhere we go. People are after him for autographs, there’s media around, there are scouts around, everybody wants a part of him. The conversations we have are about leaving that stuff behind and doing his job.

“The kid is very impressive, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to be special. But the best thing is he has the right attitude. He’s easy to talk to, he wants to learn, he’s always happy, always smiling.’’

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.





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