ST. PETERSBURG — Amid the hung heads and goodbye hugs in the Rays clubhouse following their Oct. 8 playoff-ending loss in Cleveland, a player who had one of the most disappointing seasons found some inspiration from the frustration.
Dealing with immense expectations (especially after signing a franchise-record $182 million extension), injuries that led to two lengthy absences and inconsistent performance, Wander Franco didn’t deliver much of an encore after his smashing 2021 debut.
But Franco, 21, insisted he will be better for it.
“I’ll always say that was a great experience for me mentally,” said Franco, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I’d never really gotten hurt that way before. So just being able to now know what that experience is, how I can prepare for next year and what I can do in the offseason to make sure that I can stay healthier.”
Franco got off to a sizzling start, 11-for-22 in the first five games and hitting .381 (16-for-42) with a .934 OPS through 10, before missing his first game due to right quad tightness April 18 in frigid Chicago.
He came back hot, going 6-for-14 with three homers in the next three games, hitting .393 with a 1.111 OPS through 13, before the decline started and his leg issues became more of a problem. Over the next 32 games, until going on the injured list May 31, Franco hit just .213 (26-for-122, six extra-base hits) with a .552 OPS.
He returned June 26, hit .225 with a .622 OPS in 13 games, then broke the hamate bone in his right hand on a swing, and missed two more months. He came back Sept. 9 and finished strong over 25 games hitting .322 (28-for-87, 10 extra-base hits, seven strikeouts) with an .853 OPS. He then went 1-for-9 in the two-game Wild Card Series sweep by Cleveland.
Manager Kevin Cash, understandably, is excited for 2023.
“I can’t wait to see what next season brings,” Cash said. “Wander faced a lot of challenges this year with the injuries.
“For a young player that had come up through the minor leagues, through our system, that had never been hurt to deal with the groin/hamstring area, and then the hamate bone, I honestly think it just kind of buckled him.
“This kid wants to go out and play. He’s always played pain free. He’s always kind of played with his hair on fire and he didn’t know how to manage his workload. So get him healthy, keep him healthy, and I’m betting he’s going to take off.”
No Rays were among the 30 finalists for American League Gold Glove awards, though David Peralta is an NL choice from his time in leftfield with Arizona.
Rays officials were surprised Taylor Walls didn’t get named, especially with the addition of a utility category for multi-positional players; his 19 defensive runs saved were most among all AL infielders.
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But the top three, selected by Rawlings using “a specialized defensive formula” and other stats, were Whit Merrifield (Royals/Jays, -8 runs saved), DJ LeMahieu (Yankees, 8), and former Rays minor-leaguer Luis Rengifo (Angels, 1).
Moves will start soon as free agency begins five days after the end of the World Series, and that’s also when players on the 60-day injured list have to be reinstated to the 40-man roster; the Rays have nine.
With two headed to free agency (Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Zunino), the Rays will have to make room for most of the others. Shane Baz, JP Feyereisen, Andrew Kittredge and Brandon Lowe are obviously staying, but the Rays may face decisions on Nick Anderson, Brendan McKay and Ryan Thompson either then or by the Nov. 15 deadline to add prospects to the roster as protection from the Rule 5 draft.
Their 40-man roster is currently full, but will be down to 38 with Corey Kluber and David Peralta headed to free agency and can be reduced further with Jimmy Yacabonis and Roman Quinn expendable.
Bench coach Matt Quatraro is among a small field of finalists (Houston’s Joe Espada among them) for the Marlins manager’s job and has interviewed for the Royals job. With the Rangers hiring Bruce Bochy, the White Sox have the other current opening. A Quatraro departure could lead to several moves on the Rays coaching staff. … Work is underway to add a larger and sharper main video board at Tropicana Field. … Pitcher Luis Severino brought the Rays into the AL Championship Series chatter when asked about the Yankees not getting much love from fans around the majors: “The only place that they really like us a little bit is Tampa because they don’t have a lot of fans there.” … Three relievers who pitched for the Rays but finished the year on the Triple-A Durham roster elected free agency: Kevin Herget, Dusten Knight and Cristofer Ogando. … Team officials say there is no set deadline yet for a decision on whether they can hold spring training in Port Charlotte, given damage to the complex and the community from Hurricane Ian. Housing for players and staff is part of the question. ... Among former Rays participating in the League Championship Series is Phillies bench coach Mike Calitri, who was Tampa Bay’s advance scouting coordinator from 2009-12 before going to Cleveland and then Philadelphia. Players include San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth, Wil Myers and Blake Snell; Philadelphia’s Jose Alvarado, Andrew Bellatti and David Robertson; Houston’s Ryne Stanek. … Five Rays minor-leaguers are headed to Australia to play for Perth: infielders Junior Caminero and Willy Vasquez; pitchers Neraldo Catalina, Juan Rodriguez and Junior William. ... Chloe Grimes, the young fan battling cancer, and former Rays outfielder Brett Phillips, who homered in her honor during an April game and maintained a connection after being traded, are among the honorees at next month’s Musial awards, which inspire and “encourage kindness, integrity and civility in sports and society.”
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