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A cautionary tale when dealing with Wander Franco’s promotion

John Romano | Seattle had to backtrack on prospect Jarred Kelenic. Maybe the Rays are making the right decision by moving cautiously with the 20-year-old Franco.
Wander Franco, shown here during spring training, is hitting .313 with five home runs in his first 27 games at Durham. That's an excellent start, but it's not as if he's making a mockery of Triple-A pitching.
Wander Franco, shown here during spring training, is hitting .313 with five home runs in his first 27 games at Durham. That's an excellent start, but it's not as if he's making a mockery of Triple-A pitching. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jun. 8
Updated Jun. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — Jarred Kelenic did not screw up. That’s important to understand.

The Mariners top prospect was overmatched during his first month in the big leagues. He was sent back to Triple-A Tacoma on Monday, but that was neither his fault, nor his misjudgment.

As for the Mariners? Oh yeah, they screwed up. Big time.

You see, Seattle caved to the pressure. The Mariners called up a prospect because their offense was in a funk, their fans were waiting on the edge of their seats and the outside world was criticizing the organization for supposedly manipulating Kelenic’s service time.

And so they overlooked the fact that Kelenic had exactly 110 at-bats above Class A with a .282 batting average. Either the Mariners bought the hype or sold their integrity. Either way, it didn’t work out. Kelenic hit .096 with 26 strikeouts in 83 at-bats before his demotion.

Which brings us to the saga of Wander Franco and this, mostly, rhetorical question:

Gee, do you think the Rays might be handling this correctly?

If Kelenic was a unanimous top-5 prospect, Franco is the undisputed No. 1 minor leaguer in all of baseball. And, much like Kelenic a month ago, Franco now has 115 at-bats above Class A. Although Kelenic is about to turn 22, and Franco just turned 20.

Also, the Rays ain’t ready to call him up.

The Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic reacts after striking out swinging, while Oakland Athletics catcher Sean Murphy returns the ball during the eighth inning of a baseball game June 1.
The Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic reacts after striking out swinging, while Oakland Athletics catcher Sean Murphy returns the ball during the eighth inning of a baseball game June 1. [ TED S. WARREN | Associated Press ]

This might anger you. That’s fine. This might cause you to accuse the Rays of being cheap by delaying Franco’s service time clock to save money down the road. That’s okay, too. The Rays would rather take your abuse than risk Franco’s development or their own future fortunes.

And before going any further, let me point out that using Kelenic as an example is an extreme form of cherry picking.

There are plenty of players who had an impact in the big leagues at Franco’s age. Literally, dozens of Hall of Famers. In recent years, we’ve seen Ronald Acuna, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout succeed at that age.

But all five of them had 400 or more at-bats in the higher levels of the minors. And I would suspect if Franco is hitting above .300 with a .550 slugging percentage in mid-August, the question of his promotion will take on a much greater urgency, And, by the way, he’ll still only be 20.

Yet, for now, it’s better to be cautious.

It’s not like Franco needs to learn anything specific at Triple-A Durham. He’s not figuring out how to hit breaking pitches, or working on his defense at shortstop. The idea is to get him accustomed to life at this level of baseball. To understand what it’s like to have a week where you go 3-for-24. To grow more confident facing pitchers with larger repertoires.

All of those qualities might have helped Kelenic when he began to struggle after his first week in the big leagues.

While Franco is off to an excellent start in Triple-A, he’s not quite dominating the way he did in the lower minors. For the first time in his career, he’s got more strikeouts than walks. His batting average is also more than 20 points below his .336 career average coming into 2021. It’s not like those are warning flags, but it’s worth noting he’s not terrorizing pitchers the way he did in rookie ball.

The larger point is that no one knows the perfect time to call up a prospect. No one knows when the skills and maturity have adequately aligned. And if you’re going to err, there’s a lot more risk in undercooking a prospect by 200 at-bats than overcooking him by 200 at-bats.

That doesn’t mean you selfishly hold a player back. But the Rays have already skipped Double-A with Franco and so it doesn’t seem outrageous to see how he handles a few months of Triple-A baseball.

Look at it this way:

Is it worth calling him up a couple of months earlier than you want when there’s even a slight risk that he might hit .096 and have to be sent back to Durham to rebuild his confidence and swing?

The key here is not to bow to outside influences. You don’t call Franco up because critics are saying you’re cheap. You don’t call him up because the team needs a boost during a week-long slump. With a player this valuable, you don’t call him up for any reason other than you think this is best time for him to succeed.

The Mariners seemed to make that mistake by promoting Kelenic because of a lot of outside noise.

You should be grateful the Rays don’t appear to be falling for the same temptation.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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