The international free agent market can be unpredictable and often fickle. But based on the early returns, the Rays appear to have hit on their $3.825 million signing last July of shortstop Wander Franco.
Playing as a 17-year-old for Rookie-level Princeton, Franco started his career with a flourish, collecting hits in 29 of his first 31 games, including 25 in a row that featured a 5-for-6 cycle day. He hit .370/.414/.630 with six home runs and more walks (10) than strikeouts (eight).
“I can’t recall many—and I’m somewhat of a historian—but I can’t recall a performance like Wander Franco’s,’’ said farm director Mitch Lukevics, who has been with the Rays from the beginning. “He has the wonderful ability to hit, and hit like not too many ever in this organization.’’
Many attributes have made Franco so productive. He has physical tools, the ability to switch-hit and the athleticism to play shortstop.
“He is a high-energy player who is a quick-twitch muscle skill player,’’ Lukevics said. “He’s a very mature 17-year-old, and he’s a wonderful kid.’’
Franco has an added layer of appeal. He has two uncles who played in the major leagues: long-time Angels shortstop Erick Aybar and former Rays third baseman Willy Aybar. He also has two older brothers, also named Wander, who play in the Giants’ system.
“Having bloodlines in the game can only be a benefit,’’ Lukevics said. “You’re around (the game), you see it, you hear about it. That can only help.’’
Though hype is building quickly for Franco, especially in light of the recent rapid ascent of the Nationals’ Juan Soto and Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr., the Rays will be understandably conservative with Franco’s development track.
Among other things, Franco has to get fully adjusted to full-season ball next season, which will be a change from the tryout-driven schedule in his native Dominican Republic.
“Wander Franco is learning how to play the game as a professional,’’ Lukevics said. “He needs game action.’’
** The Rays called up Triple-A Durham outfielder Justin Williams for one day when they were shorthanded while Kevin Kiermaier needed a couple days to rest a sore foot and Johnny Field had been designated for assignment.
** In two late-July deals, the Rays acquired two 25-year-olds who joined the big league team: lefthander Jalen Beeks (from the Red Sox for Nathan Eovaldi) and catcher Michael Perez (from the Diamond backs for Matt Andriese)