PORT CHARLOTTE — Shane McClanahan was in the Rays clubhouse after his impressive one-inning outing against the Pirates Wednesday at Charlotte Sports Park when fellow pitcher Adrian De Horta burst in with news that Wander Franco had just hit a home run.
McClanahan was not initially impressed, having played at the low end of the minors in 2018 and ’19 and at last year’s alternate site sessions with Franco, who is the game’s consensus top prospect.
“I’ve seen Wander go deep plenty of times,” McClanahan said. “I’m not really surprised. I know he’s good. I’m like, ‘Yeah, okay, Wander hit another home run. Just doing what Wander does.’
“And then I saw the video. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that thing went over the building.’ And you don’t see that. That just showcases how good and how truly special a player Wander Franco is. The kid’s 19 years old, 20 years old, and he’s putting balls over buildings.”
Whether the ball actually cleared the building beyond the rightfield fence that houses team offices or hit the roof and bounced off was unclear. Launching a ball on to the roof, which a few Rays have done previously, is impressive enough. When a Rays staffer climbed up to check Wednesday, there was no ball.
The rightfield fence is about 350 feet from home plate. The building is set back 51 feet from there and 26 feet high. By one team official’s calculation, a blast to clear it would have to carry around 550 feet.
Either way, it’s another part of the wonder of Wander.
Franco said he heard the ball went over the building and landed in the parking lot. He was certain it was the farthest ball he had ever hit a ball in a game. He said he felt like the Hulk because of how hard he connected with it.
“It feels really good,” a smiling Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Thank God I had that opportunity to go out there. I know I haven’t been doing too well the last few at-bats recently, but I’m glad that finally came out my way.”
For what little it mattered, Franco had been 0-for-5 to start the spring and was chasing a few more pitches out of the zone that he typically does, given his sharp eye and extreme plate discipline. (Proof? He has more walks, 83, than strikeouts, 54, in 175 games over his two minor-league seasons.)
But when you are hyped as the top prospect in the game for two straight years say in your first camp media session, “I’m ready to play in the big leagues,” there are going to be expectations every time you take your position at shortstop or go to the plate.
It was no different Wednesday, when he stepped in against Pittsburgh’s Miguel Yajure with two outs in the second inning. Franco took what looked to be a very easy swing and hit the ball a very long way.
“Impressive,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “I told him he should have done it (Tuesday) on the ESPN game.
“But it’s really impressive to see him have at-bats. Just for him being so young and seeing the feel he has 1.) for the strike zone and 2.) for his ability to just to put the bat on the ball. It’s really impressive. He really has a bright future ahead of him.’'
Realistically, that future includes at least starting this season in the minors, possibly at Double-A.
For all Franco has done, he just turned 20 on Monday, has yet to play above Class A and hasn’t played competitively since September 2019 — save for five games in winter ball before he was shut down due to a minor shoulder and biceps issue. And the Rays already have a pretty good shortstop in Willy Adames.
But for any of the Rays who have seen Franco play, it seems just a matter of time.
Vidal Brujan, another of their promising middle infield prospects, raved earlier in the day about Franco’s work at the plate.
“The fact that he’s so young and the way he bats and he’s got such quick hands,” Brujan said, via Navarro, “sometimes I think he’s not even human.”
Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola has been impressed with how calm Franco seems in his first major-league spring training.
“Just his clock,” Mottola said. “You can see his clock in ground balls. You can see his clock in the cage. His tempo — he doesn’t get sped up. Like, this is a pretty big stage. There’s a lot of eyes on a guy that doesn’t have one major league at-bat. So you’re always cautious and trying to, ‘Hey, we don’t have any expectations.’ I don’t even need to have that speech with him.”
Zunino said he marvels at the total package.
“You don’t see many 19-20 year old kids that have that presence in the box, know what they want to accomplish,” he said. “He’s been facing pretty elite talent in our organization, especially last year at the alternate site. And it seems like he’s unfazed. Usually you can see a guy get rattled a little bit, but he’s facing big-league arms here, and he’s getting pretty good swings on balls. And I think it just speaks to how talented he really is.”
The long homer was an obvious example.
“That was sweet,” outfielder Austin Meadows said during an in-game interview with Fox Sports Sun. “His swing is so easy. It’s like he’s not even trying out there. He’s just so good. He’s got a lot of talent. It’s fun to watch him play, so hopefully we’ll see him up in Tampa soon.”
Franco said he’s doing everything he can, trying to take advantage of every opportunity to reach his ultimate goal.
Could a couple more blasts like Wednesday’s help his cause?
“If that’s the opportunities I get, let’s hope that’s what happens,” he said. “I’m ready to go, and I’m ready to work.”