Wander Franco had a lot of baseball influences growing up in the Dominican Republic.
His uncles Erick and Willy Aybar played in the majors. The Bani native also has two older brothers, both named Wander, who were well-regarded amateurs who signed with the Royals and Rangers as 16-years-olds.
But Franco’s biggest influence—his idol—was his neighbor.
“Jose Ramirez,” Franco said through a translator, breaking into a wide smile as he mentioned the Indians’ star third baseman’s name. “That’s my friend from back home and I watch him a lot, to try to obviously understand what hitters are trying to do.
“When I was little, we were neighbors, so I got to meet him and watch him come up and do all his good things. That’s my idol.”
Like Ramirez, Franco has dyed the top layer of his hair blonde. Like Ramirez, Franco is a switch-hitter who plays the left side of the infield. And like Ramirez, Franco is raking.
The Rays signed Franco, the No. 1 international prospect in the 2017 class, for $3.825 million last year when he was 16 years old. This year at the tender age of 17, he won player of the year honors in the Rookie-level Appalachian League while making his pro debut.
After skipping the Gulf Coast League altogether, Franco shined for Princeton, batting .351/.418/.587 with 11 home runs, 10 doubles and seven triples in 61 games. He still wears braces and can grow only wisps of facial hair, yet, playing at the same age as a high school junior in a league where the average player is 20 years old, he had more walks (27) than strikeouts (19) and led the league in hits (85) and RBIs (57).
“He’s lived up to the bill of sale, there’s no doubt about that,” Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer said. “He’s a real mature 17-year-old kid who at times makes you wonder how he’s got so much baseball ability.
“Besides the numbers he’s putting up and how hard he hits the ball from both sides of the plate, he seems to end up at the right place on defense all the time. He slows the game down to the point to where nothing really catches him off guard . . . I think his best days are ahead of him, even though I think he’s the best player in this league.”
Based on his pedigree, Franco’s success isn’t entirely unexpected, but before he was a teenage millionaire, he was just another elementary school-aged boy who wanted to hang out with the older kids.
Franco was 7 years old the first time he met Ramirez, then 15. They quickly struck up a relationship. Even after Ramirez signed with the Indians after the 2009 season and came to the U.S., they remained in touch.
They’re now both professionals, and that relationship hasn’t changed. Franco said he texts Ramirez every day. Ramirez, for his part, occasionally sends a friend to watch Franco play and report back to him.
“I keep track of what he’s doing,” Franco said. “Obviously, I’m following that same path and when I talk to him, Jose always lets me know, ‘If you ever have any issues, you got me here (to help).’ ”
There haven’t been many issues to speak of for Franco.
In addition to his offensive success, Franco has also impressed defensively. Though he made 14 errors, his arm strength and ability to get to balls in all directions have stood out.
“He shows me a shortstop’s arm, he’s got great range, he’s got super instincts in the field,” Sheaffer said. “Whether he stays at shortstop or not, that’s not my call. He may have enough power to hit on the corner at third base. We do have a lot of shortstops in the organization, but no one is going to stop him from advancing.“
Franco’s demeanor has impressed Sheaffer equally as much as his skills. Sheaffer, a 57-year-old former big league catcher, saw Franco for the first time in spring training and was immediately struck by the teenager’s maturity and humility.
“Somebody who comes in with that résumé that he has and has signed for a substantial amount of money, you would think that they act like they deserve to be treated better,” Sheaffer said.
“I didn’t see that out of Wander. I saw a kid who loved to play the game, was liked by his teammates, had good communication with his coaches, he was there as part of 170 guys. No prima donna attitude or anything like that.”
Franco’s maturity and composure carried over to the Appy League, though there is one thing that frustrates him—not playing.
“He’s a kid who’s going to get some days off and he shows frustration when he gets days off,” Sheafffer said. “He wants to be out there every day. There’s not a whole lot of things that make you think he’s only 17 years old. But for a young man who is competing for the first time in a real baseball setting, he’s not only impressing me and the coaching staff, he’s impressing the rest of the league.”
For Franco, it’s simply a product of mirroring his idol.
“I try to mimic Ramirez’s aggressiveness,” Franco said. “I want to mimic his swing because he makes a lot of contact.”
Franco has done plenty of that, and more, in his first professional season.
Whether he ends up the second coming of his idol Ramirez is too early to tell. Regardless, there is no doubt in the mind of his manager that Franco has the talent to be a similarly special player.
“I don’t think there is a comparable player out there to him because the ones I’m thinking about in my mind are really, really good major league players,” Sheaffer said. “I don’t see any part of this game that’s going to trick him or slow him down.
“He handles himself as a pro, and as I said, his best days are ahead of him.”