Dominican Republic's Top 2017 Prospect: Wander Franco
Kevin Maitan was the easy pick as the top 16-year-old player in the 2016 international signing class.
This year, for many scouts, that debate comes down to either Dominican shortstop Wander Franco or Venezuelan catcher Daniel Flores.
“I thought Flores and Franco were above the rest,” said one international director. “The stuff they were doing was ridiculous.”
Franco, a 16-year-old who trains with Rudy Santin, is the top prospect in the Dominican Republic. He’s linked to the Rays and is expected to be the highest paid player in the 2017 class with a bonus that should check in just south of $4 million. Here’s Franco's case as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2017 class.
Franco’s baseball intelligence is well beyond his years, which shouldn’t be a surprise. His uncle, Erick Aybar, plays shortstop for the Padres in his 12th big league season. Franco has two older brothers—both also named Wander Franco—who play in the Royals and Astros farm systems, though the 16-year-old Franco is by far the best prospect among the siblings.
At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Franco has a heavy lower half but is not physically imposing. When he steps into the batter’s box, he unleashes ferocious bat speed with a sweet swing from both sides of the plate and above-average raw power typically found on players with bigger statures.
“It’s an advanced bat, “ said a second international scout. “He’s an offensive, middle-of-the-diamond guy. Every time he came up, I was like, ‘This kid should be playing well above here.’ He can play on cruise control and still be better than you. Then when he wants to shift it up a gear, he’s much better than you.”
For many scouts, Franco is the best pure hitter in the class. His barrel stays on plane through the hitting zone for a long time and he has excellent bat control, which leads to a high contact rate. He tracks pitches well, understands the strike zone and squares up all types of pitches for hard line drives to all fields.
“You could put him in Low-A right now and he would be fine,” said a third scout. “He has one of the fastest bats I’ve scouted here. It’s quick with strong forearms and in games he slashes the gaps for doubles and triples.”
Added another scout: “He can do things a lot of kids his age can’t do. If I had to pick the best position player, it’s Franco, no doubt. You can put him in rookie ball and he’s going to do well, he’s just so mature as a player.”
When Franco gears up in batting practice, he can launch balls out of the park, though in games he takes more of a contact-oriented, all-fields approach.
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“He had the best hitting ability in the class,” said the first scout. “His body is not very projectable, but he has present tools and I loved his swing from the left side. Even though he doesn’t have a live body, he had some electricity to his actions.”
In evaluating a 16-year-old hitter, Franco checks off nearly every box that scouts look for, whether it’s with his swing, his bat speed, his approach or his high-level game performance.
“Obviously, Franco was the guy,” said a fifth south. “He was like a man among boys. I don’t think he’s a shortstop—I think he’s more of a second baseman—but he can really hit. He doesn’t have any standout tools besides the bat, but I really liked him.”
Shortstop Or Second Base?
The majority of scouts asked responded that they didn’t think Franco would stick at shortstop. Most of them thought he would go to second base, where he has the tools to develop into an above-average defender. Franco has soft, quick hands, gets good jumps off the bat and his overall baseball savvy shows in the field. He has at least an average arm that should be fine for shortstop, but the risk most scouts pointed to about whether he stays at shortstop long term is his body type.
Many scouts like to see more wiry, athletic frames on a 16-year-old shortstop, whereas Franco has a heavy lower half that projects to get bigger, which leaves some scouts with concerns about his future range and flexibility at shortstop. However, Franco is expected to start his career at shortstop, and he does have his believers in the scouting community that he could play shortstop in the major leagues.
“He had hit and power from both sides,” said a sixth scout. “He’s athletic with really quick hands to hit. He made a lot of contact and I think his pitch recognition and hand-eye coordination are advanced. The overall hit tool was impressive. I think he has a chance to stay at shortstop, probably more than most people think. A lot of people want to push him off shortstop already, but he has the athleticism, speed, arm and actions for it and I think his internal clock is pretty good too. The components are all there. If he maintains his body, he should be able to stay at the position.”
There isn’t an easy comp for Franco. Some scouts bring up Rougned Odor—who also has a brother of the same name in the minors—for his rhythmic swing and feel for hitting, though Odor at the same age was more slightly built and less powerful than Franco. Gleyber Torres, the No. 2 international prospect in 2013, was another savvy, sweet-swinging shortstop with a relatively filled out frame who, like Franco, elicited debate about his long-term chances to stick at the position when he was 16. Either way, Franco has all the attributes consistent with an elite 16-year-old prospect.
“He has a solid approach, good contact skills and he hits the ball hard,” said a seventh scout. “He has a chance to be a well-rounded hitter who can stick in the middle of the infield. He’s always been a compact build guy, he’s always had good bat speed, but he drives the ball like a man. He’s very mature for his age. He looks like he’s physically mature in the lower half, then you watch him play in the game and he’s really quick, he has good hands, the arm is solid. So it’s more about which way does his body type go? If he stays lean, I think he has a chance to play shortstop, or at the very least he could be a very good second baseman.”