Wander Franco Lives Up To Lofty Comps
In a Rays farm system stocked with upper-level prospects trying to fight traffic for a path to the major leagues, the most watched player will be turning 18 just before minor league camp opens and awaiting his first full-season at-bat.
Of course you’ve heard of him by now.
It’s hard to not have, considering Franco's dazzling pro debut in 2018, when he hit .351 with 11 home runs in 61 games at Rookie-level Princeton. Noteworthy were a 53-game on-base streak, plus finishing with more walks (27) than strikeouts (19).
The Appalachian League's player of the year, the multi-talented shortstop vaulted to the No. 1 spot on the Rays' Top 10 Prospects list and into the top 10 prospects in the game overall.
“I didn’t expect any of the things that happened,’’ Franco said, via Rays team translator Manny Navarro. “I just went in like any other year. I’ve just got to be happy I had the opportunity to have the year I did.’’
The success naturally generates massive hype, which Franco, who signed in 2017, seems to have a handle on. Also, a flowing string of comparisons.
One is to Jose Ramirez, the Indians star who Franco grew up living near in the Dominican Republic and watching closely. The ability to hit from both sides of the plate with tremendous bat speed, impressive discipline and intriguing power are all solidly similar. Plus the skill to play middle infield.
In addition, Franco said, “the joy of playing baseball is something I like to get from him.’’
While Franco will only just be embarking on a full-season assignment in 2019, it's instructive to consider how quickly the best prospects advance. For example, Nationals outfielder Juan Soto unexpectedly made his big league debut last May at age 19. Soto was called up after moving quickly from low Class A to high Class A to Double-A to start the season.
With two uncles who played in the majors—Erick and Willy Aybar—and two older brothers, also named Wander, in the minors, Franco has enough savvy to acknowledge his timetable and track to the majors is up to the Rays.
But he also has enough confidence to say what he feels.
“The faster I can get to the big leagues,’’ Franco said, “the better.’’
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— Righthander Jaime Schultz finally reached the majors in 2018 after six years of battling injuries and inconsistency. He throws with high-end velocity but didn’t do much when he reached Tampa Bay and was designated for assignment and then traded to the Dodgers for righthander Caleb Sampen, a 2018 draft pick who is the son of former big leaguer Bill.
— In being promoted from minor league catching coordinator to major league field coordinator, Paul Hoover is the sixth former Rays player to join the coaching staff, following Rocco Baldelli, Wade Boggs, current manager Kevin Cash, Dave Martinez and Ozzie Timmons.