The moment baseball fans have been waiting for is finally here.
The Rays announced Sunday that MLB’s consensus top prospect, Wander Franco, will join the major league club Tuesday when it opens a series against the Red Sox.
In a season where a number of the game’s top prospects have flourished, Franco will be the latest big name to reach the big leagues. The last year he wasn’t ranked at the top was in 2018, when a young Blue Jays prospect named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was No. 1 and a Padres shortstop named Fernando Tatis Jr. was No. 2, according to MLB Pipeline’s rankings. The year prior, Shohei Ohtani was No. 1 and Ronald Acuna Jr. was No. 6.
As Franco prepares to put on a Rays uniform for the first time, here’s all you need to know about the game’s latest uber-prospect.
Franco is a five-tool talent
This expression gets thrown around a lot, but by all accounts, it is the case with Franco.
On baseball’s 20-to-80 scouting scale, MLB Pipeline lists all five of Franco’s tools as grading out at 50 or above. His power received a 60 grade, his arm and speed both registered at 55, his fielding tool stood at 50 and his hit tool checked in at 80 — a rare feat.
And Franco has certainly earned those grades. He has been on a triples tear of late at Triple-A with four in his past five games, to go with a stolen base. In 2019, the last minor league season before the coronavirus shut down play in 2020, Franco tallied 18 stolen bases in 114 games split between Single-A and Single-A advanced.
The power? The switch-hitting Franco uses his lightning-quick hands to generate plenty of it from both sides of the plate. As a 17-year-old in rookie ball, he launched 11 homers in 61 games and posted a .587 slugging percentage. He followed that up with nine homers as an 18-year-old in 2019 and had seven in 38 games at Triple-A as a 20-year-old this year.
These aren’t cheap home runs, either.
In an era where batters are striking out at record rates, Franco is a consistent contact hitter. His 11.6 percent strikeout rate is the highest of his career and it is the first time his rate has reached double digits or exceeded his walk rate. He has been praised not only for his ability to make contact on pitches in the strike zone, but also to identify pitches outside the zone. In 213 minor league games, he has 95 walks to just 74 strikeouts.
Put all that together, and his career slash line is .333/.400/.538.
The biggest question mark with Franco has always been his glove. He is a natural shortstop, but the Rays have tried him at second and third base. They promoted Taylor Walls earlier in the season, and he’s known for having one of the best gloves among shortstop prospects.
But scouts grade Franco’s arm as above-average and have said that he can handle short. Should he need to move off the position, however, he could put his speed to use as a well above-average player at the hot corner or the keystone.
He’s still young
When Franco makes his MLB debut this week, he will become the youngest player in the game.
His rise to the big leagues has been incredibly fast: he has never spent more than 62 games at a single level of the minors and he skipped Double-A altogether.
And it’s not as if he came out of nowhere. Before Ohtani announced that he would be joining a major league team for the 2018 season, Franco was listed by MLB Pipeline as the best international prospect likely to sign with a big-league club in 2017. He signed with the Rays on July 2, 2017, for a $3.825 million bonus, according to MLB Pipeline, as a 16-year-old.
Many of the game’s top international prospects struggle when they initially reach the minors, but But Franco proved early that he could handle pitching in the U.S. and quickly put himself in the discussion among the game’s best prospects.
He comes from a baseball family
Like Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Cody Bellinger, Franco has baseball bloodlines. And like Guerrero, Tatis and Acuna, he shares a name with his relations.
Franco’s father, Wander Franco, was a minor league player in the 1990s, and older brothers Wander Javier Franco and Wander Alexander Franco have played in the past decade. Javier Franco started with the Royals organization and ended with the Giants in 2018. Alexander Franco started with the Astros and ended with the Giants in 2019, according to ESPN. Wander Samuel Franco, the Rays prospect receiving the promotion Tuesday, will be the first in his immediate family to reach the big leagues.
But the Francos are not the only ones in the family to play professionally in the U.S. Uncles Willy and Erick Aybar spent time in the majors, with Willy playing three of his five seasons with the Rays and Erick spending 10 of his 12 years with the Angels.
He has been compared to Vlad Jr.
Inevitably, when two young prospects soar through the minors and reach consensus No. 1 status, comparisons are going to be made.
It’s easy to see why with Guerrero and Franco. Both were highly touted international signees who quickly showed off some of the best hit tools scouts had seen in the minors. They routinely picked up 80 grades as players who could contend for batting titles. It also didn’t hurt that both players were with AL East organizations and both played on the left side of the infield.
The distinction has tended to be overall package vs. better hitter. Franco can do everything well, if not great, while Guerrero was always regarded as a below-average runner and defender who also just might happen to be the next Miguel Cabrera in the batter’s box.
MLB Pipeline asked executives around the league in 2020 to decide which player would be best. Franco received the most votes as the better overall player and Guerrero picked up the win as the better hitter.
It is also important to keep in mind with a prospect like Franco that he might not immediately take off. Guerrero was a solid hitter his first two seasons in the big leagues, yet many fans questioned whether he was overrated. Now, he’s one of the front-runners for AL MVP and he’s still only 22.
Now MLB fans who haven’t been keeping an eye on the minors can make a determination for themselves. The Rays and Jays will face off July 2-4 in Buffalo and July 9-11 in St. Petersburg.
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