PORT CHARLOTTE — Joe Ryan had his Wander moment last year during an early afternoon, late-season game with the advanced Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs.
“No one had put the ball in play for like six innings and some guy hit a ball up the middle and I was like, ‘(Darn), he hit it pretty hard,’" Ryan recalled. “And Wander just — all of I sudden I turn around — and it was almost like out of (the movie) For the Love of the Game, where the shortstop slides through, picks it up and flips it to first. I was like, 'Wow, that was sick.’
“That side of him I hadn’t seen before, and that was really exciting. We talked about it later in the dugout, and he was saying, ‘Yeah, I realize what I need to do in the big leagues, and I want to be in the big leagues for a long time.’
“And not like he wasn’t taking it serious before, but he was just like, 'I really need to focus.’ And it was awesome to hear that when we were just sitting there talking, and then to see him do it day in and day out with the consistency that he has."
Ryan, the pitching counterpart to Franco as Tampa Bay’s top 2019 minor-leaguers, is one of many Rays raving how wonderful Wander Franco, the game’s consensus No. 1 overall prospect, can be.
Players who teamed with him in the minors boast about what he does at shortstop and from both sides of the plate. So do some of the big-leaguers who saw him up close during rehab assignments with the Stone Crabs.
“He’s very talented for a not even 19-year-old kid," Brandon Lowe said. “It’s pretty unbelievable to watch him get out there and play."
“He’s good,’’ Joey Wendle said. “Period."
And now the rest of us can get a peek, and on a slightly grander stage, as Franco is slated to play in his first big-league exhibition games, coming off the bench on Thursday in Port Charlotte, then starting Friday in West Palm Beach against the Nationals.
And all before turning 19 — yes, 19 — on Sunday.
“We talk about him a lot for good reason," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s put himself in that position where we’re going to hopefully continue talking about him. ... This will be our first look at getting him over and just letting him play. There won’t be any messages for him other than just to go have fun."
In just two seasons as a pro, Franco has obviously played quite well, climbing through three levels as the youngest player at each stop and still posting remarkable numbers, showing quick hands and a mature approach in hitting .336, with a .405 on-base percentage and .523 slugging percentage for a .928 OPS.
More impressive, logging 83 walks compared to 53 strikeouts, even more noteworthy given a 7 percent strikeout rate overall and 4.3 swing-and-miss percentage, that rank among the best of all minor-leaguers.
Franco has said his goal is to make the majors as a teenager, which means sometime this season, which he is expected to start at Double-A Montgomery. Rays general manager Erik Neander said at the start of camp that wasn’t out of the question.
Rays vice president Carlos Rodriguez said there are mutual benefits for having Franco play in these two major-league spring games, and maybe a few others.
For the team.
“Obviously Wander is very talented and has accomplished much in a short amount of time as a professional, which has been recognized around the industry," Rodriguez said.
“Our major-league personnel have taken note but don’t often get the chance to watch him compete up close, and spring training provides an obvious, if not convenient, opportunity to expose Wander to our players and staff, some of whom will be seeing him for the first time."
And for Franco.
“It’s our responsibility as a player development department to provide experiences that put players in better position for major-league success. There will be a lot of noise and unfamiliar faces the closer he gets to the big leagues. There’s a tremendous benefit in surrounding him with our best players and major league staff to kindle relationships and start the acclimation process while getting game reps against a high level of competition."
Rays staff and players are curious to get a first-hand sense of what the buzz is all about.
Including Willy Adames, the Rays’ 24-year-old current shortstop. “It will be exciting," Adames said. “He’s an exciting player. So it will be good to see him."
Ryan said he noticed “a different look” in Franco’s eye when he got promoted from Bowling Green to Charlotte last summer. Catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez, Franco’s roommate and close friend, said this spring opportunity will be relished.
“The way that he plays, the style that he plays at shortstop, the calmness that he has at the plate, he kind of seems like a veteran already. He’s very calm and relaxed," Hernandez said, via interpreter Manny Navarro.
And, in time, Hernandez said, “He’s going to show the whole world exactly what he can do."