Rays shortstop prospect Wander Franco at the center of attention at Futures Game

Franco has risen fast to become game’s top prospect at 18, now aiming for a 2020 major-league debut.
Rays prospect Wander Franco interviewed Sunday by ESPN's Marly Rivera for an upcoming national feature. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Rays prospect Wander Franco interviewed Sunday by ESPN's Marly Rivera for an upcoming national feature. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Published July 7, 2019|Updated July 8, 2019

CLEVELAND – Wander Franco knew getting selected to play in the All-Star Futures Game was the latest acknowledgement of his accomplishments on a planned express path to the major-league stardom.

The Rays 18-year-old shortstop, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the game, got a sense of how big, and how big a deal he has become, quickly after arriving in Cleveland Friday morning.

Franco was one of four Futures Game players invited up early for a VIP visit and videotaping at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While walking through downtown to have lunch with Rays exec George Pappas, Franco was unexpectedly stopped repeatedly by fans seeking photos and autographs. During media access before the Sunday night showcase game, writers and TV reporters queued up for interviews in English and Spanish, along with a couple of ESPN crews working on a feature to air nationally during the July 17 Rays-Yankees game.

Plus his parents, two brothers and a sister made the trip from their native Dominican Republic to see him play in the U.S. for the first time.

“It was awesome,'' Franco said after the 2-2 tie, with Pappas interpreting. "I really did enjoy it quite a bit, taking in all the moments. It was marvelous.’’

Franco got to show his talents batting leadoff and playing shortstop for the American League team, and with some flair to match the thick gold chains he was wearing, going 1-for-2. Catcher Ronaldo Hernandez, who also plays for the Class A advanced Stone Crabs, was the other Rays rep. He went behind the plate in the fifth inning, popping out and, with a chance to drive in the winning run in the seventh, striking out.

Franco was called out on strikes in his first at-bat, then patted his chest to indicate to Double-A ump Jose Navas he thought the ball was inside. Franco laced an opposite field single in his second at-bat, leading off the fourth with his team down 2-0, then tried to steal second and got caught, thinking he was in. He wasn’t tested much in the field, catching two pop-ups and coming up just late on a tag play at second on a throw from first.

As honored as Franco was to be chosen for the annual showcase, and as the youngest player, he has his sights set higher. Specifically, getting to the majors by the end of next season, when he’ll still be 19, and on a relatively short list of teenaged big-leaguers.

“If I keep doing what I’m doing, maybe next year I’ll find myself in the big leagues,’’ he said. “My goal is next year.’’

That seems a tad aggressive, given he was just last month promoted from Class A Bowling Green to Charlotte. Then again, all he’s done since signing with the Rays as a 16-year-old in July 2017 for a hefty $3.825 million is look like a future star.

At rookie-level Princeton last year, he posted a .351 average with 11 homers, 57 RBIs, 19 strikeouts vs. 27 walks and a 1.004 OPS in 61 games. Moving up to full-season Bowling Green to start this year, he hit .318 with six homers, 29 RBIs 20 strikeouts to 30 walks and an .896 OPS. In eight games since joining the Crabs, he hit .448 with two homers, nine RBIs and no - yes, no - strikeouts to five walks with a 1.259 OPS.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Is he that good? Will things always be this easy?

“At times the game can be hard,’’ Franco said. “But I kind of look at it as, it’ll be hard if I make it hard. You work hard every single day to avoid it getting hard. But at some point, yes, I think it will be.’’

Franco says this almost like he knows he has to, but doesn’t quite believe it himself. He is confident without being cocky, and shows the joy and boyish charm of still being a teenager, including wearing braces, while being showered with fame, fortune and praise.

And with more praise everywhere the 5-10, 189-pound switch-hitter goes.

“I love him,’’ said AL Futures Game manager Jim Thome, the Hall of Famer. “I have not seen a lot of him, but everybody just raves about his ability. And in so many ways. That’s the best part of all the great things these kids are doing. I could envision him being similar to Robby Alomar, what Robby did as the whole package.’’

The Rays are thrilled, obviously, with what Franco has done. But it’s also their job to be cautious.

"His ability to slow the game down stands out, without question,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. “So far, so good. Being 18 and having the success he’s had to date presents unique challenges; staying humble and driven will be critical to fulfilling his long-term, high-end potential.’’

Wander Samuel Franco seems to have plenty of motivation, including his family. He has two uncles who played in the majors, Erick and former Ray Willy Aybar. Two older brothers (also named Wander, as is their father, though all with different middle names, which they go by) played in low end of the minors.

And he has a son, with his girlfriend back home, who will soon turn 1. His name, “Samuel Jr,” is tattooed along Wander’s left arm.

“It’s hard sometimes knowing I’m here and he’s there,’’ he said. “I think about my son every single day. He gives me a lot of motivation to work hard. All these things I’m doing, I’m doing for him.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.