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Why was Wander Franco playing third base for Rays?

Was it a matter of expanding the 20-year-old’s versatility for the future? Or something more imminent?
The Rays' Wander Franco fields a ground ball at third base during a game against the Braves in North Port on Sunday, March 14, 2021.
The Rays' Wander Franco fields a ground ball at third base during a game against the Braves in North Port on Sunday, March 14, 2021. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published Mar. 14
Updated Mar. 14

NORTH PORT — Wander Franco, the consensus top prospect in the game two years running as a shortstop, played third base for the Rays on Sunday.

And played it well, albeit with limited chances.

“I felt very, very good and comfortable,’' the Dominican-born Franco said, via team interpreter Manny Navarro “Like I’ve been playing there before.’'

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But why?

Manager Kevin Cash insisted it was no big deal, simply part of the Rays’ plan to have their numerous top infield prospects be able to play multiple positions, as Taylor Walls, Vidal Brujan and others have.

Cash noted that Franco has done drill work at third this spring and as a member of the 2020 postseason taxi squad, and he is likely to do the same at second.

“We’re going to get him acclimated as much as possible to all those positions,’' Cash said. “We don’t have many guys that aren’t able to move around.’'

But why now?

Did the timing of Franco’s debut at third have anything to do with first baseman Ji-Man Choi’s knee injury, given that two of the team’s third basemen, Yandy Diaz and Yoshi Tsutsugo, will play more at first base?

Cash laughed. “None whatsoever,’' was his actual answer.

Cash went with a practical approach beyond the Rays’ preference for the prospects to play multiple positions, pointing out the team has “a really good shortstop” in Willy Adames, who is only 25, and has shown flashes of greatness with the glove and potential with the bat. So the Rays need options.

“Going to have to move around a little bit to accommodate everybody, whenever that time comes,’' Cash said. “But Willy Adames is our shortstop. He’s really good at it. We’ll make sure everybody around him is as equipped and prepared as possible to play other spots.’'

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - MARCH 14: Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays at third base during the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Tampa Bay Rays at Cool Today Park in North Port, FL on March 14, 2021. (Will Vragovic / Tampa Bay Rays)
PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - MARCH 14: Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays at third base during the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Tampa Bay Rays at Cool Today Park in North Port, FL on March 14, 2021. (Will Vragovic / Tampa Bay Rays) [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

The key to that sentence is “whenever that time comes.”

This, in a way, is a big year for Adames, whose salary will start to climb next season when he is first eligible for arbitration, with free agency ahead in 2025. How he does this season, such as cutting down on strikeouts, might determine his future with Tampa Bay.

And that of Franco.

Despite all the hype, Franco is not going to start the season in the majors. He just turned 20 on March 1, has not played above the Class-A level, and has not played not competitively, save for short winter ball stints, since September 2019. Whenever the minor-league season starts, he is headed to Triple A or even Double A. A promotion to the majors at some point this year seems likely but not lock-solid automatic.

With the Rays expecting to make a first, and potentially large, roster reduction as soon as Monday, Franco might not even be in big-league camp much longer. Sunday’s start at third could have simply been an opportunity for the Rays to get a look at him playing the position in a major-league game.

Taking direction on positioning from Adames and infield coach Rodney Linares, Franco made plays on the three balls hit to him, though was a step slow on one grounder — it could have been a double play — due to what he said was glare off a sign behind the plate.

Franco, who pronounced himself ready for the majors at the start of camp, said he was good with whatever the Rays want, especially if it gets him to the majors quicker.

“We haven’t really sat down and talked about it, but I know that I could play at any other position,’' he said. “So wherever they put me is their decision, and I’m going to be ready to play, wherever that may be.’'

Some talent evaluators around the game think Franco, who is listed at 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds, might be better suited moving to third or second, citing a comparison to Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. Others say Franco will be fine at shortstop, where his power from both sides of the plate would have an added benefit.

Cash said he’s pretty sure Franco can handle whatever position, whenever it’s time.

“Pretty seamless. We saw a ton in the bubble (last year), in the early workouts, taking live ground balls at third. He looks very comfortable basically with a glove or a bat in his hand,’' Cash said. “As much as we shift guys and we practice in shifted positions, he’s turned multiple double plays on both sides of the bag as if he was playing second base. I think we’re all very comfortable wherever we stick him at those three spots.’'