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As Rays’ Wander Franco matures, there can be highlights and headaches

Tales | Being rich, famous and incredibly talented at age 22 can be tricky, so the team is working to help its star shortstop.
 
Rays shortstop Wander Franco prepares for an at-bat during Friday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco prepares for an at-bat during Friday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Tropicana Field. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 27, 2023|Updated May 27, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Wander Franco does so many good things for the Rays, helping them win with his bat, glove, arm and legs — a truly dynamic, multitalented player.

But the 22-year-old budding superstar shortstop also does some things that could leave team officials scratching their heads or with a throbbing headache.

Nothing major, but enough to draw attention given the scrutiny that comes with being the face of the big-league franchise.

There was the look-at-me move of flipping the ball to himself before throwing to first base on what would have been a routine groundout May 3 against Pittsburgh, creating a debate over whether it was showboating or showing off immense talent that threatened to break the Internet.

There were several at-bats where Franco hit an infield grounder and didn’t run hard to first. That could be viewed, or defended, as preventive maintenance given his previous leg-muscle issues. But on a sure hit, Franco busts out of the box, seeking to stretch it for an extra base. And he has been one of the team’s most aggressive base-stealers, swiping 18 (through Friday) while being caught a majors-most five times.

There also have been occasional heated words with teammates — most recently Tuesday in the dugout with Randy Arozarena — which happens at times in competitive moments.

That incident came shortly after Franco tried unsuccessfully to make the play on a grounder that third baseman Isaac Paredes had a better angle on, allowing Toronto to score a run. It wasn’t the first time there has been chatter about Franco over-reaching or ball-hogging to make a play.

Conversation, and any consternation, over these issues is at least in part a product of Franco’s standing in the game and something of a tradeoff.

Blessed with immense physical tools and baseball instincts, hyped and touted since he was a teenager, promoted at a young age to the majors, cemented in a prominent role on a winning team and rewarded with a contract that guarantees him $182 million by his early 30s, Franco is going to be held to a high standard and watched closely, from inside and outside the organization.

As much time as players spend together, petty jealousies — over things like perceived special treatment, a prime locker location or, in Franco’s case, an adjacent rack to hold several dozen pairs of cleats — can be common. Among more experienced players, they can provide something of a base for clubhouse teasing and humor.

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But for someone at an age where they still may be developing socially (especially in group dynamics), learning to control their emotions (especially in handling criticism) and maturing, that can create additional pressure.

The Rays seem to be understanding, viewing Franco as a good person still growing up and protecting him when they can. Notably, none of his perceived transgressions have drawn any public criticism from bosses or teammates.

Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) and Jose Siri celebrate after Friday's 9-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) and Jose Siri celebrate after Friday's 9-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Tropicana Field. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“He’s a very talented, highly competitive, extremely motivated person who has ascended so fast it’s easy to forget he’s just 22,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said.

“As we enjoy his impact, there remains a responsibility for our organization to continue to help him mature and develop the tools he needs to best manage the stresses attributable to the game, as we commit to do with all players.”

Franco isn’t the only Ray whose actions draw attention. Jose Siri showboats on a lot of catches and takes time to enjoy his home runs. Randy Arozarena’s arms-crossed gesture, especially when he stops to do it while rounding third after a homer, seems to rile opponents. Pete Fairbanks tends to be rather animated, and occasionally vocal, on the mound.

Plus, it should be pointed out, despite whatever distractions there may be, the Rays head into the Memorial Day weekend with the best record in the majors.

But Franco is the biggest deal, so he is going to get the most attention. The Rays are hoping he keeps working to make that for the good he does on the field.

Rays rumblings

As the Rays decide between Chris Adams-Wall, Gregg Caserta and Steven Cusumano for the radio pre-/postgame job, they also are conducting auditions and interviews for a new Tropicana Field PA announcer, after parting ways recently with Greg Kalil, who was in his 13th season. … Always expanding on his El Rayo nickname, Siri showed up in the clubhouse last week wearing a blue Lightning jersey with a white bolt on the front. … Among free-agent-to-be starters who could be available as the trade deadline nears — ex-Ray Blake Snell, who is 1-6 with a 5.40 ERA with San Diego. … Shortstop Carson Williams is ranked 12th in Kiley McDaniels’ updated top 50 prospects list for espn.com, with pitcher Taj Bradley 20th, infielder Junior Caminero 21st, first baseman Kyle Manzardo 46th. … There was a familiar-looking ringer in last week’s teacher/staff vs. fifth graders kickball game at St. Pete’s Shore Acres Elementary — former Rays pitcher/current TV analyst Doug Waechter, who claimed to go 3-for-4 with six RBIs in helping wife Kristen’s team to a 34-32 win. … The upcoming trip to Boston will provide some memories for third-base coach Brady Williams, who was last on the field at Fenway Park as a 16-year-old bat boy during the 1997 season when his dad, Jimy, took over as the Red Sox manager. … Starter Drew Rasmussen’s original prognosis of eight weeks with no throwing due to a May 11 flexor muscle strain was confirmed in a visit to specialist Dr. Keith Meister, who also administered an injection of Vitti-Pure (which utilizes umbilical cord tissue as an alternative to PRP) to accelerate healing. … Even though he is running the big-bucks Dodgers with a $223 million payroll that is triple the Rays’, Andrew Friedman is still using the same line — and line of thinking — as when he led Tampa Bay’s baseball operations department about the need to keep one eye on the present and one on the future. “That’s how you know it’s genuine,” he said. … Ray Negron, a St. Petersburg resident who works as a community adviser for the Yankees, recently received a Global Humanitarian Leadership Award from the Federation of World Peace and Love.

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