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The first pages of history begin today for Wander Franco and the Rays

John Romano | The past tales of baseball’s top prospects list is definitely intriguing but also a little scary.
Rays fans have been following Wander Franco's progress since he was signed to a $3.85 million contract as a 16-year-old in 2017. So far, he hasn't done anything to disappoint.
Rays fans have been following Wander Franco's progress since he was signed to a $3.85 million contract as a 16-year-old in 2017. So far, he hasn't done anything to disappoint. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 22

ST. PETERSBURG — The first day is meant for souvenirs and scrapbooks. Take your pictures, call your friends, save your keepsakes.

Let the world know that when Wander Franco made his Major League Baseball debut you were there in Section 105, Row U, Seat 8. Or maybe you were across the street at Ferg’s. Or sitting at home watching on TV with your Little Leaguer beside you.

No matter the venue, it was an experience to be shared among thousands of Rays fans and millions of baseball fans. That’s the beauty of a debut, the thrill of finally seeing the game’s Next Big Star.

And after the first day … only 20 years to go.

It is, at the same time, the most exciting and daunting part of the equation. The scouts and stats say Franco has all the talent in the world, but that does not guarantee the career everyone is expecting to see.

Just ask Delmon Young.

Fifteen years ago, Young was also Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect. Like Franco, he was 20 years old. When he was promoted from Triple-A Durham, he was hitting .316 with eight homers. Franco was hitting .315 with seven homers.

Delmon Young impressed immediately when he was called up, but his career wasn't destined for longevity.
Delmon Young impressed immediately when he was called up, but his career wasn't destined for longevity. [ Times (2007) ]

Young went 2-for-3 with a homer in his big league debut, and went on to finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2007. His big-league career was also finished before he turned 30.

That’s not meant to ruin your mood, just to point out the challenge of expectations. Baseball America has been doing its prospects list since 1990 and, in all that time, only one No. 1 prospect has reached the Hall of Fame, although several others are worthy.

Franco will need to navigate the pressure of everyone watching, the inevitable slumps that he’s never known before and the comfort of a fat contract. He will need to stay healthy and fit, make adjustments as pitchers try to find his weaknesses and avoid the flaw of conceit.

With all of that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of the 27 previous players who were No. 1 prospects on the Baseball America list, and the categories they comfortably fall into:

What could have been

Braves starting pitcher Steve Avery throws in the first inning in Game 2 of the National League playoffs against the Pirates on Oct. 7, 1992.
Braves starting pitcher Steve Avery throws in the first inning in Game 2 of the National League playoffs against the Pirates on Oct. 7, 1992. [ DOUG MILLS | Associated Press (1992) ]

Steve Avery was an 18-game winner at 21, a World Series starter at 22 and an All-Star at 23. By 24, after three consecutive seasons of throwing 200 innings, he had an arm injury and already was heading toward retirement. Yankees prospect Brien Taylor didn’t even make it that far. He got into an offseason fistfight at age 21 and ruined his shoulder. He never reached the majors.

Rick Ankiel was a phenom with the Cardinals in 2000 and started Game 1 of the playoffs against Greg Maddux and the Braves but inexplicably lost his control. He threw five wild pitches and had six walks in 2.2 innings, and was never the same player again.

What could have been, Part II

The Rangers' Josh Hamilton waits for a pitch in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Rays in 2010.
The Rangers' Josh Hamilton waits for a pitch in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Rays in 2010. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2010) ]

Josh Hamilton is a category unto himself. The former No. 1 pick of the Rays wasted years of his career due to a drug problem, but still managed to rebound to win an MVP Award and make five All-Star teams in Texas.

Never panned out

Ben Grieve flashed early but was done in the majors by age 30.
Ben Grieve flashed early but was done in the majors by age 30. [ BILL JANSCHA | Associated Press (1998) ]

Ben Grieve won a Rookie of the Year award and put together several promising seasons in Oakland, but never seemed to have a passion for the game. Like Delmon Young, his career was finished before he turned 30. Jurickson Profar made his debut as a 19-year-old in Texas, but has been a below-average hitter through eight seasons. Todd Van Poppel was rushed to the majors by the Athletics and never seemed to progress as a pitcher.

Just good enough

Daisuke Matsuzaka ended the 2007 season (his first in Boston) with the Red Sox rookie record for strikeouts in a season.
Daisuke Matsuzaka ended the 2007 season (his first in Boston) with the Red Sox rookie record for strikeouts in a season. [ FRANK FRANKLIN II | Associated Press (2007) ]

By most measures, these players (Jay Bruce, Matt Wieters, Cliff Floyd, Jason Heyward, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew) had highly successful big-league careers. They just didn’t quite measure up to the hype of a No. 1 prospect.

Glory remains on the horizon

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Angels in Dunedin earlier this season.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Angels in Dunedin earlier this season. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The most recent crop of prospects looks much more promising than previous years. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr. and Byron Buxton are all MVP candidates this season, Andrew Benintendi is having a comeback season in Kansas City, Corey Seager has made a couple of All-Star teams, Kris Bryant won an MVP at age 24, and Bryce Harper was an MVP at 22.

No complaints here

Then-Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, left, poses with National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Chipper Jones during an induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Then-Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, left, poses with National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Chipper Jones during an induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. [ HANS PENNINK | Associated Press (2018) ]

Alex Rodriguez? Performance-enhancing drug questions may block his path to the Hall of Fame, but A-Rod is one of the top 20 position players in baseball history. Chipper Jones is the only name on the list who is already in the Hall of Fame. Joe Mauer and Andruw Jones were dominant players for a short time and could have trips to Cooperstown in their future. Mark Teixeira does not have a signature season and is probably just shy of Hall of Fame standards, but still had an enviable career.

So there’s your list. And, as you can see, there is plenty of fluctuation involved.

Position players fare much better than pitchers, and infielders seem like a better bet than outfielders. And Franco is one of only four players to repeat as the No. 1 prospect in back-to-back seasons, joining Harper, Mauer and Andruw Jones, which seems like good company.

Generation after generation has had their own set of heroes debut in from of their eyes, from Willie Mays to Johnny Bench to Adrian Beltre. Is Wander Franco destined for similar greatness? Hopefully, we’ve got 20 glorious seasons to find out.

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

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