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The incomparable Wander Franco?

The Rays star shortstop was a coveted prospect for years and certainly lived up to the hype once called up. Teammates and coaches agree that “Wander’s going to do Wander things.”
Wander Franco, a two-time overall No. 1 prospect, quickly translated his talents to the big leagues. The shortstop plays a demanding position, is a good contact switch-hitter, has speed and constantly works at his craft with his first full season approaching.
Wander Franco, a two-time overall No. 1 prospect, quickly translated his talents to the big leagues. The shortstop plays a demanding position, is a good contact switch-hitter, has speed and constantly works at his craft with his first full season approaching. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 5

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays have something of an organizational philosophy against publicly comparing their rising young players to current or past big leaguers, believing that doing so can theoretically put a ceiling on a player who may exceed the comp, or potentially deem one a failure if he fails to measure up.

Wander Franco presents a different problem.

After seeing the game’s two-time top prospect play impressively well for most of 70 games after being called up in late June at age 20, Rays officials find themselves unsure of how to quantify what they witnessed.

“I don’t think I can say I’ve seen it,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Who have we seen it from? I mean, geez, Alex Rodriguez? Bryce Harper?

“What Wander’s going through, there aren’t many comps. That’s the best way to say it. There just aren’t that many comps. I’m not sure if we’ve seen it. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how it plays out.”

Hitting coach Chad Mottola runs through some impressive potential company, but — with some bias — dismisses each one.

Harper and Juan Soto, who both debuted at age 19 for Washington, are outfielders; Franco plays the more demanding position of shortstop. Rodriguez, who broke in as an 18-year-old shortstop for Seattle in 1994, swung only from the right side; Franco has the added value of being a switch hitter and with a high contact rate.

The better Franco does, more bigger names will be brought up.

Albert Pujols, whose No. 5 Franco wears in tribute, and Vlad Guerrero Jr.? Franco can do more in the field and on the bases. Shortstop contemporaries Fernando Tatis Jr. and Bo Bichette? Star shortstops Carlos Correa and Corey Seager? Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken or Barry Larkin?

“What’s the comp on him? I have no clue,” Mottola said. “There’s so many layers to what his ceiling could be. It’s just one of these things. We just sit back and watch and marvel at him and say, ‘Wander is being Wander.’”

Growing up Wander

Wander Franco scores a run in the first inning of his MLB debut June 22, 2021, at Tropicana Field.
Wander Franco scores a run in the first inning of his MLB debut June 22, 2021, at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Wander started being Wander as a young kid in the Dominican Republic, tapping into the familial bloodlines — two uncles, Erick and one-time Ray Willy Aybar, played in the majors; his father and two older brothers, all named Wander, in the minors. He started to excel as a young teen and left school as he was quickly funneled into the academy-based prospect pipeline and predicted for searing stardom.

Bill Evers, working as a field coordinator for the Rays as he neared the end of 46 years in the game, saw Franco as a 14-year-old and said then — and still maintains now — “he had the greatest hand-eye coordination I’d seen in my career.”

The Rays signed Franco as a 16-year-old in 2017 for $3.825 million, beating out bigger-name teams by offering the largest bonus that year under the new international signing rules, amplifying the hype.

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Then when Franco got on the field — debuting as a 17-year-old pro for the Princeton (W. Va.) Rays on June 19, 2018, in Kingsport, Tenn. — he quickly began to turn up the volume even more.

He led the Appalachian League in hits, RBIs and total bases, ranked fourth with a .351 average while compiling a 1.005 OPS, showing remarkably mature plate discipline while posting 25-game hitting and 53-game on-base streaks, and winning MVP honors.

He moved up to low Class A Bowling Green to start 2019, then to advanced Class A Charlotte and, among the youngest players in both leagues, starred again, hitting a combined .327 with an .885 OPS.

He amazed even his teammates, including streaks (one with each team) where he went 91, 106 and 115 pitches without swinging and missing.

“Wander Franco is a very special player,” said starter Shane McClanahan, a teammate of Franco’s then and now. “I’ve been saying this since Princeton — the guy’s unbelievable. … He’s going to be a big, big, big part of our success going forward. And I know we’re very lucky to have him.”

Franco spent the pandemic-canceled 2020 minor-league season at the alternate site workouts and on the postseason taxi squad. And he needed only six weeks at Triple-A in 2021 to force the Rays to promote him to the majors at age 20.

Cash said all the hype and attention that preceded Franco to the majors “was unfair.” In his first at-bat, Franco drew a full-count walk. In his second, he flied out. In his third, he hit a three-run game-tying home run.

Now Cash is used to it: “Every day is Wander day.”

Learning on the job

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) swings at bat, flies out in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) swings at bat, flies out in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

That Franco actually scuffled for his first two weeks or so in the majors — hitting .197 (12-for-61) through 15 games with just four extra-base hits, a .586 OPS and, most stunningly, three times as many strikeouts as walks (15-5, including his first 3K game at any level) — turned out to be telling. And, arguably, good.

Realistically, it made sense as Franco’s 40 games for Durham, and 40-plus at-bats in winter ball, were his only experience facing advanced pitching. And it came to illustrate to the major-league staff how serious Franco was about his craft.

“You’re seeing cutters and split fingers and sliders that the only way to see them is in the big leagues,” Mottola said. “You anticipate some guys struggling and maybe doing some mechanical changes or approach changes, but you have to let it play out and see what type of learner they are.”

Mottola prepared an array of ways to connect with and help Franco, starting with a suggestion about tweaking his setup. And that was pretty much it.

“Most guys, you give them the reason, then you give them layers of ways to fix it,” Mottola said “All you have to do is tell him once. And that’s the crazy part. You just have to verbalize, ‘Hey, do this, or do that, whatever it may be,’ and he does it. You don’t get to experience that as a coach. You’re always ready for the next problem to come. …

“You just sit back and marvel at him, that you’re not supposed to be able to do this, to make the adjustments just by seeing it.”

Over Franco’s final 55 games, from the breath-catching All-Star break on (and around missing 12 games in September with hamstring tightness), he was among the league’s best players.

He hit .314 with 24 extra-base hits, 32 RBIs and an .872 OPS. He struck out only 22 times. And he cobbled together a 43-game on-base streak that matched the record for longest by a player 20 and under (set by Frank Robinson in 1956).

He showed a remarkable maturity in plate discipline, and the rare ability to spoil pitches, put the ball in play and hit it out of the park.

“His baseball savvy, IQ, was really impressive,” Cash said. “The awareness of how pitchers are trying to attack him, and then the awareness of how to spoil pitches. We’ve got guys that can spoil pitches that maybe don’t have the ability to drive pitches when they get them. We have guys that can drive pitches, but can’t spoil pitches. He’s shown the ability to do all of it.”

When the season ended early in the Division Series loss to the Red Sox, Franco had established himself as very much the elite player he was expected to be. Cash — now fueling the hype — called him arguably “the most impactful player on any team in baseball.”

Franco impressed not only as a hitter, but a complete player.

He put in the work to improve defensively and quell any talk of being moved off shortstop to third or second base. He ran the bases aggressively and showed leadership skills by playing with boundless enthusiasm and energy.

And he made clear his deep desire to win, sitting with McClanahan in the dugout as the season ended in Boston, painfully watching the Sox celebrate as motivation.

All before turning 21.

Said McClanahan: “It’s almost just kind of like, yeah, Wander’s going to do Wander things.”

Fame, glory, money

Wander Franco arrives for a news conference at Tropicana Field in November as he and the Rays announce a team-record contract of $182 million guaranteed over 11 years.
Wander Franco arrives for a news conference at Tropicana Field in November as he and the Rays announce a team-record contract of $182 million guaranteed over 11 years. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Franco already had the fame, and the 2021 season brought success. Then in November the Rays added riches, bestowing on Franco the largest contract in franchise history: $182 million guaranteed over 11 years, with the potential for $223 million total over 12.

Team officials insisted they were comfortable the money wouldn’t change how hard Franco worked or carried himself. Nor how he acted toward his teammates, who say they’re pleased he got paid.

“It was awesome,” pitcher Tyler Glasnow said. “It was great. It’s really cool to see the Rays doing that. Obviously he’s such a supreme talent, of course, that’s someone you’ve got to try and lock up for a long time.”

Franco, via team interpreter Manny Navarro, said being a good teammate is “the most important thing” to him. On many spring mornings, he has been among the first to arrive at the stadium. During what has been a steady stream of interviews from national media outlets, he at times will start fidgeting so Navarro knows to wrap it up so they can head to the batting cage.

Cash noted an early spring game in which Franco saw only three to four pitches his first at-bat, and one each of the next two. “The next day when he came in and decided, I’m going up to see pitches,” Cash said. “To have that type of ability to make an adjustment yourself without being told to do that at that age, or that lack of experience, is pretty cool.”

Franco’s combination of working incessantly to get better while having so much fun playing also sets him apart.

“I say all the time, that this game has robbed our innocence because of how hard it is, the outside pressure of family, of money, of all these things,” Mottola said. “And the innocence he’s kept for being the No. 1 prospect is for me the most special thing about him. And that’s saying a lot for all the talent he has.”

For comparison’s sake

Wander Franco signs autographs before the spring training home opener at Charlotte Sports Park. He continues to earn praise for how he carries himself.
Wander Franco signs autographs before the spring training home opener at Charlotte Sports Park. He continues to earn praise for how he carries himself. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

No matter how you frame it, what Franco did last season was impressive.

A valid comparison could be made historically to the Rays’ first true homegrown star, Evan Longoria, though he was older (22) and came up early in the season when he debuted in 2008.

“I always understood that the expectations on me were high, but I didn’t really ever feel the weight of it when I was young,” Longoria said. “It also helps when you play well and you play on a good team. None of the extra magnification is there. I could imagine it being very tough if the opposite happened.

“Also, let’s not forget that Wander was 20. 20! That’s insane. He’s got a bright future and I hope he goes on to accomplish many great things.”

The next step is Franco’s first full big-league season, and he will be laden with expectations.

To improve statistically, with third base/infield coach Rodney Linares already tossing out the goal of a 30-homer, 30-steal performance as Franco’s power should soon blossom. To further tighten his defense. To make good decisions on the bases.

Bigger picture, to live up to the contract and not worry about naysayers. To develop, naturally, into the leader of the Rays team. And a face of the game, already getting some traction to joining the upper echelon of young stars, such as Guerrero, Soto and Tatis.

With all the potential comparisons, what does Franco think?

“I don’t like to compare myself to anyone,” he said, via Navarro. “I don’t like others to compare themselves to me. I just go out there to do my work. And that’s the kind of game I like to play. I just compare myself to Wander Franco.”

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Living up to the hype?

Atlanta Braves centerfielder Andruw Jones makes a diving catch in a 2005 game. Like Wander Franco, Jones was a highly-regarded top prospect for multiple years before getting a callup.
Atlanta Braves centerfielder Andruw Jones makes a diving catch in a 2005 game. Like Wander Franco, Jones was a highly-regarded top prospect for multiple years before getting a callup. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | Associated Press (2005) ]

Being tabbed Baseball America’s overall No. 1 prospect, as Wander Franco was twice, is usually a good indicator of success. But there have been a few who flamed out, and one who never made it to the majors. Franco is in elite company as a two-time selectee, joining Andruw Jones, Joe Mauer and Bryce Harper. Players below are listed with team at the time, years in the majors and career WAR (per baseball-reference.com):

1990 LH Steve Avery, Braves: 11 years, 13.8 career WAR

1991 RH Todd Van Poppel, A’s: 11, 0.3

1992 LH Brien Taylor, Yankees: 0, 0

1993 SS Chipper Jones, Braves: 19, 85.3

1994 OF Cliff Floyd, Expos: 17, 25.9

1995 SS Alex Rodriguez, Mariners: 22, 117.5

1996 OF Andruw Jones, Braves: 17, 62.7

1997 OF Andruw Jones, Braves: 17, 62.7

1998 OF Ben Grieve, A’s: 9, 8.4

1999 OF J.D. Drew, Cardinals: 14, 44.9

2000 LH Rick Ankiel, Cardinals: 11, 9.1

2001 OF Josh Hamilton, Rays: 9, 28.2

2002 RH Josh Beckett, Marlins: 14, 35.7

2003 3B Mark Teixeira, Rangers: 14, 50.6

2004 C Joe Mauer, Twins: 15, 55.2

2005 C Joe Mauer, Twins: 15, 55.2

2006 OF Delmon Young, Rays: 10, 3.2

2007 RH Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: 8, 9.4

2008 OF Jay Bruce, Reds: 14, 19.9

2009 C Matt Wieters, Orioles: 12, 18.2

2010 OF Jason Heyward, Braves: 12*, 39.4

2011 OF Bryce Harper, Nationals: 10*, 40.1

2012 OF Bryce Harper, Nationals: 10*, 40.1

2013 SS Jurickson Profar, Rangers: 8*, 3.2

2014 OF Byron Buxton, Twins: 7*, 16.2

2015 3B Kris Bryant, Cubs: 7*, 28.7

2016 SS Corey Seager, Dodgers: 7*, 21.3

2017 OF Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox: 6*, 12.5

2018 OF Ronald Acuna, Braves: 4*, 14.9

2019 3B Vlad Guerrero Jr., Jays: 3*, 9.5

2020 SS Wander Franco, Rays: 1*, 3.5

2021 SS Wander Franco, Rays: 1*, 3.5

2022 C Adley Rutschman, Orioles: NA, NA

*Still active

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