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For young Rays such as Wander Franco, it’s a big step to big-league success

Alex Rodriguez and others say the pressure is real, and the pitching and routine take time to adjust to.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco celebrates his triple in the fifth inning during the series against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco celebrates his triple in the fifth inning during the series against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 31, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — For two-plus years, Wander Franco was considered the best prospect in the minor leagues.

During his first 5½ weeks in the majors, Franco has shown flashes of that extraordinary talent but overall been nothing special.

His .230 batting average and .671 OPS through Friday, three homers and 12 RBIs in 28 games, 0.6 WAR rating per are pedestrian for a big-leaguer.

Yet, none of that diminishes what the Rays see in and expect from the 20-year-old infielder going forward.

“He’s going to be a really good player,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s already a really good player. I’ll just continue to harp on the patience part. It’s going to take some time, just letting him continue to get his feet wet and get acclimated.”

As quickly as Franco moved through the Rays system — signing as a 16-year-old in July 2017 for $3.85 million, starring at the rookie-league level in 2018 and Class A in 2019, impressing at the alternate-site workouts in 2020 and playing well for seven weeks at Triple-A Durham at the start of this season — the transition to the major leagues is the most significant hurdle.

“It’s a bigger jump than what anybody thinks it is,” Cash said. “That’s the best way to put it. Triple-A to the big leagues in this day and age is bigger than what anybody can imagine.”

That’s why the Rays are going to be extremely patient with Franco, and overly positive in their public assessments despite the unimpressive numbers and inconsistency.

The transition for players as young as Franco has always been challenging. Only a few have handled the increased level of competition and expanded litany of distractions and pressures from the start. (Notably, two other top Rays prospects, Vidal Brujan and Taylor Walls, were sent back to Triple-A after being called up.)

Alex Rodriguez came up at 18 and Mike Trout at 19, and both were stars at 20. Miguel Cabrera, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. impressed immediately at 20. Vlad Guerrero Jr. debuted at 20 and is having a breakout season at 22.

“I was just a few months removed from my senior prom, and all of a sudden I’m stepping into the box to face Roger Clemens,” said Rodriguez, the analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball game at Tropicana Field.

Rays shortstop Wander Franco, pictured before the start of the series against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco, pictured before the start of the series against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

“There’s definitely a ton of pressure. I was a No. 1 pick, Wander was the No. 1 prospect. I actually split time between the Mariners and (Triple-A) my first full year, but that time up really helped me. I like what the Rays did in waiting for the right moment for Franco.

“They’re an incredible organization, and Wander is an incredible talent,” Rodriguez continued. “He came out hot, hitting a homer in his first big-league game, and he’s hit a little bit of a wall right now, but that happens. It takes time adjusting to big-league pitching, the lights, the routine, everything.’’

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The quantity of quality pitching at the major-league level is the biggest single challenge, especially when a top prospect’s status precedes him.

“No doubt, it’s a huge transition,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino, who was drafted No. 3 overall by Seattle in 2012 out of Florida and in the majors a year later at 22. “There’s no seasoning for the big leagues. You can get however many at-bats you want at Triple-A … and until you get to the big-league level, it’s different. … It’s a learning curve. You’re going in, and guys are going to do stuff that he’s never seen before, just because they know who he is. That’s the toughest part. That’s the adjustment period.

“And there’s a little bit, too, of a mental side where you want to come up and prove yourself, and you press a little bit. So there’s going to be a little bit of window for all these guys that come in. They’ll settle in, find their own and then take off.”

There are also off-field issues to deal with, Rays outfielder Brett Phillips said.

“It’s very tough for guys to come up and almost be normal with the atmosphere, the external distractions, the magnification of the big leagues,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s the fans, social media, just a lot of external distractions that the big leagues bring. It’s not just like playing baseball, right?

“In the minor leagues, you show up. Yeah, you may have one media guy, but for the most part, it’s just, like, you’re playing baseball, you don’t have to worry about anything. Life is easier. But then when you get here, you’ve got to win, you’ve got to perform. If you don’t, someone’s going to be on you. I think that’s the hardest part for a young guy to mature through and experience.”

Franco said he is learning what it takes to succeed in the big leagues.

“I’d say it’s a little different, but for the most part, it’s the same game,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think I’m getting comfortable faster. You get a little bit more comfortable, little by little, and you get used to the environment, and I think that’s helped me out a lot.”

Rodriguez, via email, said the Rays have Franco positioned well for success.

“I love that the Rays brought in (designated hitter) Nelson Cruz, I think he’ll really help Wander grow and develop,” Rodriguez wrote. “There’s so much incredible young talent in the game today, baseball is truly lucky. I bet in a couple years we can add Wander’s name to the list of young stars like Tatis, Guerrero, (Ronald) Acuna (Jr.), and so many more.”

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