ST. PETERSBURG –—There are many things Wander Franco does extraordinarily well, which the 20-year-old consensus top prospect will begin to showcase Tuesday night at Tropicana Field when he makes his major-league debut for the Rays against the Red Sox.
Lightning-quick hands controlling his bat from both sides of the plate, minimizing misses and maximizing contact on the barrel, with the power to drive the ball into gaps and over fences. A discerning eye for balls and strikes, and the maturity to trust it. Athleticism in the field, with a smooth glove, strong arm and veteran savvy. Speed on the bases. An infectious energy and obvious joy for the game.
But what stands out to Brady Williams, the Rays’ Triple-A manager who worked closely with Franco the past two seasons, might be the most significant to long-term success.
“His inner drive,” Williams said Monday. “He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be great. And that’s a very rare trait to see, especially in a 20 year old.
“There’s a lot of players that have that drive to be great or the skill set. One of them. He has the skill set and the drive to do that.”
Rays officials were convinced Franco was ready for the majors based on his performance on and off the field during six-plus weeks at Triple-A Durham. He hit .315 with seven homers, 35 RBIs and a .954 OPS for Bulls, handling not only his success, but also some failure and scrutiny from playing on the bigger stage, responding with an impressive work ethic and maturity they felt made the timing right.
“He got some quick learning moments in a hurry in Triple-A,” Williams said. “Talking with him, I’m not saying I’m glad they happened, but those are the kinds of things that define and kind of make what the player becomes. Respecting the game, respecting his teammates, respecting the fans — those are all things he learned really quickly at Triple-A.”
Williams broke the news Sunday during a team dinner stop at the El Tapatio restaurant in Rocky Mount, N.C., amid a 10-hour bus ride from Norfolk, Va., to Jacksonville. Franco was thankful, somewhat humble and a bit emotional, a reflection, Williams said, that the promotion is “not his end goal.”
The Rays organization is clearly excited to welcome him, hyping the news of his promotion while plugging tickets sales and beer specials on social media, arranging to have replica Franco No. 5 jerseys and T-shirts in the team store Tuesday.
Coaches and staff that have worked with Franco, who signed with the Rays for $3.85 million as a 16-year-old in July 2017, say they should be.
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From the time the Rays first saw Franco as a 13- or 14-year-old — with then-international scouting director and now vice president of player development Carlos Rodriguez getting “a little sneak preview” by Franco’s former trainer and handler, the late Rudy Santin in the Dominican Republic — they knew he could be something special and started their years-long pursuit to sign him.
Franco made his pro debut with rookie-level Princeton (W. Va.) in 2018 at age 17. Hitting coach Waurnner Rincones said his discipline and ability to make contact at the plate were “amazing,” especially for his age, evidenced by a 25-game hitting streak and .351 average.
More impressive? “How he enjoyed the game,” Rincones said Monday. “We have had guys that have signed for a lot of money and when they played in the rookie league, they didn’t show that enthusiasm or desire to be on the field that he did.
“That was one of the things that I saw different from him than some other guys. He wanted to win. Every time he was on the field, he wanted to win. And he played hard every day.”
Reinaldo Ruiz was even more impressed the next year, when he managed Franco at Class A Bowling Green (Ky.). “The first time I saw him in spring training, I went like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is something special.’ This kid, I said he’s a freak. That was my first word,” said Ruiz, now a coach with Durham.
Franco has gotten better, gaining more consistency and more confidence with his right-handed swing; moving better to his right when playing shortstop; and, more recently, learning the nuances of playing third base, where he also will play and start Tuesday.
Already Franco, listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, has been compared in different ways to current stars such as Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, who is from the same town, an occasional workout partner and pretty much Franco’s idol.
Now actually being in the major leagues will bring new challenges, a major step up in competition along with the increase in attention, distractions and temptations.
The Rays staff is confident Franco can handle it. They note the fame, autograph and selfie requests — many from adults, and even opposing team employees — he dealt with in the minors, which at Bowling Green led the team to arrange for extra security.
Jairo De La Rosa, the Rays’ Latin American cultural coordinator, has worked closely with Franco and others on the necessary transitions (including learning English) and said Franco’s ability to focus on the game alleviates any concern.
“The world could be falling apart, and when he steps on the field he flushes everything,” De La Rosa said from the Dominican Republic. “He’s into the game.”
Still, expectations may need to be tempered.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Williams said. “He’s not going to be this perfect player out of the chute. I hope people can kind of be open to that.
“He’s going to do a lot of things that are going to wow you, though, and that’s kind of what the Wander experience is. He has a knack for the moment. He has a knack for being a spark of your team. He plays hard. And the fans, I think, will embrace that.”
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