July 2, 2017: Franco signed with the Rays, out of the Dominican Republic, via scout Danny Santana.
If the name "Wander Franco" sounds familiar, perhaps it is because he is the son of Wander Franco and brother of two more Wander Francos. His two older brothers played in the Giants’ system.
He's also the nephew of long-time Angels shortstop Erick Aybar and former Rays third baseman Willy Aybar.
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.
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.’” (Kyle Glaser - Baseball America - 10/05/2018)
2018 Season: Franco had one of the most stirring pro debuts in recent memory, making the Rookie-level Appalachian League look easy with a .351/.418/.587 line. And 11 homers and 57 RBIs in 61 games.
In 2019, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Franco as the #1 prospect in the Rays' organization. And #1 again in 2020. And for the third straight year at #1 in 2021.
July 2019: Franco represented the Rays at the Futures All-Star Game.
Sept. 19, 2019: Franco was named Tampa Bay’s Minor League Hitter of the Year by MLB Pipeline. After hitting .351 with 11 home runs in his first half-season of professional baseball, Franco, who had just turned 18 in March, continued to produce huge numbers at the plate in his first full season in the Rays’ system.
Franco began the season with Class A Bowling Green, and he immediately began to make an impact. In 62 games, he hit six home runs with an .896 OPS. Those early results earned Franco a callup to Class A Advanced Charlotte, which didn’t seem to phase the young Dominican infielder.
In 52 games with the Stone Crabs, Franco hit .339 with three home runs in the Florida State League, which is known to be pitcher-friendly. Most impressively for Franco is the fact that he struck out just 35 times and drew 56 walks in 495 plate appearances this season between the two levels.
“He can really hit,” said former Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics. “There are not many players that I’ve come across in my career that hit like Wander Franco, especially at a young age. He has a really good bat-to-ball ratio. He just has the ability to hit a baseball. It’s special.”
With a stellar first full season in the Minors, Franco has put himself in the conversation for a possible promotion to the big leagues next season. (Juan Toribio - MLB.com)
2019 Season: Franco was named the Minor League Player of the Year in the Rays’ organization after a stellar first full season.
Franco has always had a knack for being his team’s vocal leader. It’s partly because of his talent, but it’s also because of his high-energy personality. He is exceptionally competitive in whatever he does, and he’s comfortable in the spotlight that has followed him ever since he signed as the No. 1 prospect in the 2017 international amateur class.
Nov 25, 2019: Comparing Franco to Lindor: If you compare them when Lindor was coming off his age-18 season like Franco is now, Franco clearly is the better prospect. Lindor hit .257/.352/.355 with six homers and 27 steals in low Class A, while Franco batted .327/.398/.487 with nine homers and 18 steals between low Class A and high Class A. Franco is regarded as a slightly better hitter with a lot more power and a step more speed at the same stage of their careers, though Lindor was an obviously superior defender and there's some thought that Franco could outgrow shortstop.
However, not all prospects develop in identical fashion. Lindor totaled 21 homers in 416 Minor League games on his way to Cleveland, never hitting more than six in a single year. He has slammed 33, 38 and 32 in the last three seasons, exhibiting power that neither the Indians nor anyone else imagined he would develop. If Franco exceeds his power projection as much as Lindor did, he'll be hitting 45-50 homers on an annual basis for the Rays.
While Franco showed more upside at the same age and currently ranks as baseball's best prospect, Lindor is a perennial All-Star and 30-homer guy who has won multiple Gold Gloves at shortstop. I can't say Franco will be better than that, but I'll set the bar very high and say the guy I'll keep calling Vladimir Guerrero III will be as good as Lindor (albeit creating his value with more offense and less defense). (J Callis - MLB.com - Nov 25, 2019)
March 2020: Franco, MLB's No. 1 overall prospect, played for the Dominican Republic in the Olympic qualifier.
Nov 11, 2020: Over the past year, Wander Franco made it clear that his goal was to make his debut at some point during the 2020 season. But with the coronavirus pandemic cancelling the Minor League season, Franco was unable to do so. Instead, he settled for spending the 2020 campaign at the Rays’ alternate training site and being part of Tampa Bay’s 40-man player pool throughout the postseason run.
Franco said he thought he would eventually get a chance to help the Rays in the postseason, but the 19-year-old phenom mentioned that the experience of being around the Major League team during the World Series run really benefited him.
“You get to watch those players and how they communicate, how they work and how they have so much fun when they play,” Franco said in Spanish. “It was honestly a great experience for me.”
Franco continues to set the bar high for himself, setting a goal to make his Major League debut during the 2021 season as a 20-year-old. It remains unclear which level of the Minors Franco will start in next season, but the Rays won’t rush him.
“The potential is undeniable for all the reasons that have been covered by those that have seen him,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “He has the abilities to have an impactful Major League career for a long time, that’s unquestionable. There’s no way around that.
“But you also want to make sure he’s fully set up for success in all aspects that go into that. He’s 19 going on 20, you want to make sure you do everything possible to help him mature physically, emotionally, mentally to be in the best position to deal with all the expectations that are going to be with him because of his current prospect status.”
Neander also points out that the Rays have “a few guys” that can play shortstop, which is Franco’s natural position. However, if there’s a chance for Tampa Bay to get Franco’s bat in the lineup at some point next season, the club will be open to moving the prospect to another position, primarily third base, in order to accomplish that.
“He certainly has the abilities to play other positions if that’s the way he breaks through and gets his first shot,” Neander said. “But those are all things for us to consider during spring and beyond at this point.”
But before those decisions have to be made, the Rays granted Franco permission to play with Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League in order to get him game action. Baseball’s top prospect will play at least 15 games with Escogido, all at shortstop. Tampa Bay infielder Nate Lowe and prospect Jim Haley will also play for Escogido, though they will be allowed to play the entire season.
“They told me to go do what I know how to do and stay disciplined and to just come help the team,” Franco said, when asked what the Rays’ message was. “I need to give it my all, because you learn a lot in this league that you don’t in the United States.” (J Toribio - MLB.com - Nov 11, 2020)
- May 22, 2021: Wander Franco hasn't yet made his Major League debut, but his rookie card is already pulling in the big bucks.
A signed 2019 Bowman Red Refractor graded PSA 10 sold for $198,030. It's one of just five copies.
June 21, 2021 Q&A:
The rising star recently had a fun chat with MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez.
MLB.com: Can you tell us about your nickname? We know it loosely translates to “boss man.”
Franco: Patrón is my nickname. I got it at [Rookie-level] Princeton in my first year as a professional. I was 17, and there was a lot of 20- and 21-year-olds on the team. With the numbers I was putting up, one of my teammates nicknamed me Patrón because I was so young doing good things. It just stuck with me.
MLB.com: What’s your favorite meal? Is there something you like to cook?
Franco: Arroz con huevo y avocate (rice with eggs and avocado). It’s my favorite thing to make and cook.
MLB.com: You are very active on social media. Do you have a favorite platform?
Franco: I love Instagram. It’s my favorite social media app. It’s easy to use, and I enjoy it a lot.
MLB.com: What do you do in your free time? Do you have hobbies?
Franco: I have loved sports cars since I was a kid. My mother always bought me toy sports cars to play with as a child so that was my first hobby outside of baseball. When I turned pro, I bought myself a Lamborghini and a Rolls Royce.
MLB.com: What about video games?
Franco: I play NBA [2K21], Call of Duty and MLB The Show.
MLB.com: We all know baseball players are creatures of habit. What is your daily routine?
Franco: Every day I wake up and give thanks to God for life and another day in the sun. I eat fruit and pancakes. Hit in the cage and use the machine.
MLB.com: Did you have a favorite player growing up in the Dominican Republic?
Franco: I loved all of the teams because every team had good players. I admired Manny Machado, José Ramírez and Albert Pujols growing up. That’s why I wear number 5. It’s out of respect and tribute to Albert Pujols. He’s just a legend in the Dominican Republic.
MLB.com: Which big league stadium do you want to visit the most, the stadium of your dreams?
Franco: Easy one. I’d love to play in Tropicana Field.
MLB Debut (June 22, 2021): Wander had been waiting his entire life for this day. He’s been playing under the sport’s spotlight since he was a young teenager, so he’s past the point of feeling pressure. The 20-year-old infielder said he was “born to hit.” And when he finally arrived in the Major Leagues, Franco wasted no time showing off the skills that made him baseball’s best prospect.
Franco ripped a game-tying three-run homer to left field off Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez in the fifth inning of his Major League debut at Tropicana Field, the first hit and first memorable moment. He smashed a double in the seventh and made a heads-up play in the eighth, revving up a crowd that cheered just a little bit louder than usual from the moment he emerged from the dugout for his pregame stretch and later demanded a curtain call from the team’s newest young star. Franco’s sensational debut wasn’t enough to stop the Rays’ losing skid, however, nor did his arrival slow their struggles in extra innings. Tampa Bay went quiet at the plate after Franco’s big homer and lost to the Red Sox, 9-5, in 11 innings. The Rays have lost seven straight games, their longest losing streak since dropping eight in a row from May 31-June 8, 2018, and they are now 3-9 in extra-inning games this season.
“Pretty electric player. I wish we would have somehow got a win, because it would have been a large part for his contributions,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You never forget that big league debut. He checked a lot of boxes tonight.”
Let’s review them.
–A mature approach at the plate? Yes. Stepping up to the plate for the first time in the first inning, Franco received a standing ovation. He swung at the first two pitches he saw, both strikes, and fouled them off. He then took four straight pitches outside the zone and earned more cheers from the home crowd as he trotted to first base. Franco quickly came around to score his first run, as Randy Arozarena loaded the bases with a one-out infield single and Francisco Mejía followed by knocking a single into shallow left field.
Overall, Franco saw 21 pitches over five plate appearances. He took 10 swings. He whiffed just once, on a fastball up in the zone in the third inning.
“The way he controls the at-bats, for how young he is,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “And this building behind him, I’ve never seen anything like this in this building. For him to slow down the game, they have a special one.”
–A sweet swing with power behind it? That’s what he’s known for. The first three balls he put in play qualified as “hard-hit,” with exit velocities of 95 mph or more. After the Red Sox put up five runs against Ryan Yarbrough in a long third inning, Franco worked a full count and sent a jolt into the crowd with a 96.4 mph, 370-foot fly ball hit well to center field, but Danny Santana settled under it for Franco’s first out in the big leagues.
Franco’s talents were on display again in the seventh, when he crushed a low slider from lefty Josh Taylor to left field for a 105.3 mph double. Franco hustled and slid into second base, jumped to his feet and inspired rounds of “WAN-DER FRAN-CO” chants from the crowd of 12,994.
After seeing Franco tear up Triple-A, the Rays determined he was ready. He looked that way right away.
“You look at the last few weeks here, and it seemed like, OK, Wander made his adjustments back and was ready for a new challenge based on what he had shown and just how he's gone about his business,” general manager Erik Neander said before the game. “He passed those tests, so to speak, with flying colors, and [that] gives us the confidence that with him coming here and having to do a lot of the same things, he'll succeed in those efforts as well.”
–A knack for the big moment? There’s a reason rookie shortstop Taylor Walls marveled before the game at how Franco “never doesn't have a moment.” Batting with two on and nobody out in the fifth, Franco unloaded on a first-pitch slider from Rodriguez and smashed it 362 feet out to left field. The crowd at Tropicana Field erupted, and he returned the favor by popping out of the dugout for his first curtain call.
Kind of feels like this is where he’s meant to be, right? “God sent me a surprise with all this. I went out because I felt the support of the fans,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I felt like they came out to watch me and see me play, and so I wanted to thank them.”
–Oh, and he can play a little defense, too? Yep, especially with his natural instincts on the field. When Rafael Devers took off from second base on a Hunter Renfroe ground ball with one out in the eighth, Franco made the heads-up play to tag out Devers, then fired a strong throw to Yandy Díaz to force out Renfroe. Cash called it a “web gem play.” To hear Franco describe it, it sounded routine.
“When I made the play, I peeked over to see where he was at, and I saw that he was making an effort at it,” Franco said. “So I said, 'Hey, got to try to get this guy out.'”
So began the Rays’ Wander Franco era. With a loss, yes, continuing a frustrating stretch for a team trying to get back into first place. But also with electricity, energy and hope.
“We have a very good team. I think what you see from Wander, what he brought today, it's an energy,” catcher Mike Zunino said. (A Berry - MLB.com - June 23, 2021)
2021: After his second season as a professional baseball player, Wander Franco got a tattoo. He had the MLB logo inked on the left side of his neck.
2021 Season: Consider what Franco has accomplished before his 21st birthday. He slashed .288/.347/.463 with seven homers, 18 doubles and five triples while only striking out 37 times over 308 plate appearances during 70 regular-season games. By Baseball-Reference’s calculation of Wins Above Replacement, he was the Rays’ fifth-most valuable player this season despite being called up in late June and missing more than a week in September due to a hamstring injury.
Franco had the fourth-highest bWAR of any AL or NL rookie this year. The list was led by teammate Randy Arozarena (4.2), the Reds’ Jonathan India (3.9) and the Rangers’ Adolis García (3.8), with Franco checking in at 3.5 WAR. One difference: The trio ranked above Franco played in more than twice as many games as he did. Arozarena had 141 games to accumulate his WAR total, India 150 and García 149.
Franco further solidified his status as a future superstar in his first taste of postseason baseball, going 7-for-19 with two doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and five runs scored during the Rays’ four-game ALDS loss to the Red Sox. The 20-year-old’s poise under the spotlight came as no surprise to Tampa Bay. (Adam Berry - Oct. 13, 2021)
- Oct 13, 2021: From the moment Wander Franco arrived at his first big league Spring Training camp, there were questions. Was the top prospect ready for the Majors? Could he possibly live up to the hype?
Those questions changed a few weeks after the 20-year-old shortstop’s unforgettable June 22 debut at Tropicana Field, and they kept coming all the way through his impressive postseason debut. Can he keep this up? Is he playing his way into American League Rookie of the Year votes? How would he handle the bright lights of the playoff stage? How is he doing this at his age, anyway?
The day after the Rays’ season ended with a loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, manager Kevin Cash made us ponder another thought: Is Franco already one of the valuable players in all of baseball?
“I think you could make the argument that he's the most impactful player on any team in baseball,” Cash said at Tropicana Field. “Certainly for us, our team was really good; we got better when he came. He lengthened our lineup. He made our defense better. He worked really hard on his defense to make his defense better, and it made our overall defense better.
“He is a game-changing player. It's going to be fun to watch for a long time.”
“I've been impressed with Wander from the day he got here,” Cash said before Game 4, when Franco hit a two-run homer at Fenway Park to help the Rays tie their elimination game. “He carries himself like a seven-, eight-year veteran player. He doesn't have seven, eight months in the big leagues.
“It's fortunate for us that we have him. It's a good feeling when he's walking up to the plate every night.”
Given his age and level of experience, Franco seemed to make history just about every time he walked up to the plate. His skills were on display throughout his historic 43-game on-base streak, tied with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in 1956 for the longest in AL/NL history by a player 20 years old or younger.
Among the other Hall of Famers Franco passed while tying that record: Ken Griffey Jr., Al Kaline, Mel Ott, Arky Vaughan and Mickey Mantle. He made history in the playoffs, too.
He became the fifth player age 20 or younger to homer in consecutive postseason games, joining Rafael Devers in 2017, Miguel Cabrera in 2003, Andruw Jones in 1996 and Mantle in 1952. The pair of postseason homers he hit before turning 21 also put him in elite company -- tied with Mantle and Devers behind only Cabrera (four), Juan Soto (three) and Jones (three). Cabrera is the only player with a longer postseason hitting streak at age 20 or younger.
Despite their frustratingly early exit, the Rays know they have a bright future ahead of them. They are loaded with club-controlled players and young talent, led by Franco, Arozarena and starters Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Drew Rasmussen.
“We thought it was going to be a special group coming in. They proved that,” Cash said. “I think there's a chance for us to be really, really good -- very confident we're going to be really good moving forward. And it's headlined by some very talented players, in the big leagues or maybe right on the horizon.”
So, here’s another question about Franco to think about heading into his first full season next year at age 21. Can you imagine what he’ll do next? (ABerry - MLB.com - Oct 13, 2021)