PORT CHARLOTTE — Wander Franco has done some amazing things on the baseball field in just two seasons in the low minors to be knighted the game’s top overall top prospect.
But his repeatedly stated goal of getting to the majors as a teenager, which would mean by the end of this season, still seemed hard to believe.
Rays general Erik Neander said Wednesday a lot of what you’d expect about focusing on Franco’s long-term and overall development, making sure they do what’s best for the switch-hitting shortstop and not forcing anything by rushing him.
And then he said this:
''If he picks up where he left off last year, I don’t know where that’ll lead, but it’s conceivable to think that there’s conversations to be had there deep into this season.’’
Franco, who turns 19 on March 1, starred at two Class A levels in 2019, starting with Bowling Green then in late June moving up to Charlotte.
He hit .327 between the two, with nine homers, 53 RBIs, 18 steals and an .885 OPS in 114 games, showing the advanced bat-to-ball skills. More impressively, he walked 56 times and struck out only 35, illustrative of his mature approach at the plate.
Franco seems likely to head to Double-A Montgomery to start the season. Though he has played well at shortstop and wants to stay there, the Rays could move him around the field a bit, which could help prepare him for a potential late-season role. It’s also possible he will get to play in some major-league exhibitions this spring.
Here’s what else Neander said about what they’re looking for from Franco for now:
“To continue to progress in all aspects of the things you need to do to develop to be a major—league player, and a long-standing major-league player.
“The talent is visible. There aren’t many guys across baseball that possess the talent that he has. And it’s on us to make sure that as he continues to develop and mature that he’s fully ready to go when he hits the big stage and he hits our major-league club. He’s done a wonderful job so far of progressing at a really quick rate, and a rate that we haven’t seen all too often.
“We’re not going to force anything. We’re not going to throw any additional expectations on him. We just want to make sure that we do right by him, progress him in all aspects of his development as best as we can, and prepare him for one day being a major-league player.’’
As the players, coaches and baseball operations staff are trying to get ready for this season, top Rays execs continue to work on implementing a radical plan to split future seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal. So there may be questions. “Collectively we’ll see how things unfold in camp and what’s discussed,’’ Neander said. “We try to be approachable to any of our players and our staff that want to talk about anything. That being said, 2020 is an important year for us on the field. And in our roles, especially, we’re trying to make the most of this season, we’re trying to compete, we’re trying to win as many games as possible. That’s more than enough to keep our minds consumed. We’re not going to stray far from that right now.’’
All 40 pitchers and catchers reported to camp in advance of Thursday’s first workout (11 a.m., Charlotte Sports Park, 2300 El Jobean Road), as did 12 of the 25 position players. … As usual, some veteran relievers will be on a reduced work load early in the spring. … Neander didn’t rule out further roster moves: “We feel good about where we’re at and can confidently say there’s nothing active at the moment, but I think it is also our job to be in tune with what’s going on out there. … If there’s something that can help us we’ll be ready to go.’’ … Picher Yonny Chirinos dropped 15 pounds while working out at home in Venezuela over the winter. Also, by changing his diet. His keys? Less rice and fewer arepas. "One, not two,'' he said. … Manager Kevin Cash said they’re “going to do a lot of talking and a lot of listening” throughout the spring in deciding whether to put Ryan Yarbrough and Chirinos into the rotation fulltime.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.