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International Reviews: Tampa Bay Rays

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Wander Franco (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Total 2017 signings: 27.

Top 2017-18 signing: SS Wander Franco, Dominican Republic, $3,825,000.

The Rays secured the No. 1 international prospect last year on July 2, when they signed Dominican shortstop Wander Franco for $3.825 million. Franco, who trained with Rudy Santin, is advanced in all phases of the game for a 17-year-old, and his high baseball IQ is no surprise given his background. Erick Aybar, a 12-year big league shortstop, is his uncle, and he has two older brothers—who are both also named Wander Franco—who are minor league infielders with the Giants and Astros. Franco already blends in seamlessly with older players in the system on and off the field, making up creative handshakes with the Rays’ college draft picks and playing the game with savvy and intelligence beyond his years.

Several scouts considered Franco, 17, the best hitter in the 2017 class. He has tremendous bat speed from both sides of the plate with a compact swing that stays on plane through the hitting zone for a long time. Franco’s hand-eye coordination helps give him excellent plate coverage, with the ability to square up premium fastballs and breaking pitches. He’s a high-contact hitter who uses the whole field and controls the strike zone well with good pitch recognition for his age.

With strong legs and forearms, Franco shows above-average raw power when he unleashes it during batting practice, though in games he is more line-drive oriented and piles up singles and doubles. As he develops, Franco has a chance to be a premium hitter with strong on-base skills and power.

Franco has a chance to stay at shortstop, although that could change down the road. He’s not a prototypical wiry, bouncy shortstop, as he’s already physically mature for his age (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) with a thick lower half. Franco moves well underway with solid-average speed, but because of his body type and how that could affect his range as he gets older, several scouts projected Franco would eventually flip over to second base.

At this point, however, Franco can handle shortstop, and he doesn’t have any major issues with his actions at the position. Franco approaches groundballs on his heels at times, but he gets good breaks off the bat, uses his feet well and has soft hands with an average arm. He has a good internal clock and a knack for slowing the game down at an age where many shortstops play out of control. Given his polish, Franco will debut this year in the United States in rookie ball.

Dominican shortstop Jelfry Marte signed with the Twins on July 2 for $3 million, which was the third-highest bonus in the 2017-18 class. Months later, however, the Twins voided Marte’s contract due to concerns with his vision, and the Rays signed him for $820,000 in December. He trained with Alberto Fana.

Marte, 17, is an acrobatic shortstop who jumps out for his quick-twitch athleticism and defense. He’s a true shortstop with plus speed who bounces around the position with a quick first step, good body control and range to both sides. He has a chance to be a plus defender with clean hands, smooth actions and a plus arm with good accuracy. Marte makes mistakes in the field when he tries to get too flashy instead of playing under control, but he’s an instinctive defender who should be able to corral that with experience.

Since the Twins voided his contract, Marte has played with a chip on his shoulder. He has added strength to a medium, wiry frame (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), although the biggest question remains how much offensive impact he will have. There are scouts who liked Marte’s bat speed and bat control from both sides of the plate, but many scouts thought he would likely hit toward the bottom of the order, with questions on his pure hitting ability and pitch recognition. Primarily a singles hitter with occasional gap shots during tryouts, Marte’s added strength has helped him drive the ball with more authority, although he probably won’t ever hit for much power. Marte’s speed is his best offensive asset. He’s a smart, aggressive baserunner and could be a high stolen base threat. While Marte isn’t as polished offensively as Franco, he has a chance to make his debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

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2018 Minor League All-Star Team

Guerrero, Jimenez repeat as first-team honorees.

The Rays paid $442,000 to sign 17-year-old Dominican righthander Victor Munoz on July 2. Munoz is 6-foot-4, 180 pounds and already throws hard for his age, with a fastball that has been up to 94 mph and feel to spin a breaking ball. Munoz has an extremely loose arm and a high level of physical projection that suggests he should continue to gain velocity. He trained with the Warner Baseball Company.

Roybell Santodomingo, a 16-year-old righthander from Venezuela, signed for $270,000 in July. He has a lean frame (6-foot-2, 170 pounds) with an easy delivery and clean arm action, giving him projection to add to his fastball, which has been up to 89 mph. While a lot of pitchers his age have slurvy, in-between breaking balls, Santodomingo throws a true curveball in the low-to-mid 70s with top-to-bottom action.

Maicor Leon is an extremely skinny 6-foot lefty from Venezuela who threw 83 mph when he signed for $50,000 in July. Leon, 17, has a loose, clean delivery and a good breaking ball for his age, and while he’s still skinny, his velocity has already climbed to 90 mph with more strength projection to continue throwing harder.

An 18-year-old Dominican corner outfielder signed for $30,000 in August, Dahiandy Johnson stands out for a promising swing from the left side, with a strong, physical frame (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) that gives him a chance to hit for power as well.

Another sleeper from the class to watch is Alberto Figuereo, a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop who signed for $18,000 in August. Figuereo has some similarities to fellow Rays middle infielder Vidal Brujan as a small stature (5-foot-8, 145 pounds) switch-hitter with a knack for putting the ball in play and getting on base without much power right now. He’s a plus-plus runner with a 55 arm.

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