Scouts rarely hand out top-of-the-scale 80 grades and we try to be just as stingy at MLB Pipeline. When we do slap an 80 on a prospect, it's usually for a quantifiable tool, such as speed or fastball velocity.
We almost never put a subjective 80 on a skill. But we just couldn't help ourselves in 2018, when Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was coming off a .323/.425/.485 season with a 12 percent strikeout rate as an 18-year-old at two Class A levels. We doubled down in 2019, when we also examined if Guerrero could be the best prospect ever.
Then we did it again in 2020. After Guerrero graduated to the big leagues, Rays shortstop Wander Franco replaced him as baseball's top prospect and batted .327/.398/.487 with a mere 7 percent whiff rate as an 18-year-old at two Class A stops. We popped an 80 on his bat too.
All this got us to wondering: Who's the better hitter between Guerrero and Franco? And who's the better long-term player?
So we asked a slew of team executives who specialize in evaluating players what they thought. Seventeen cast votes, and here's what they think.
Who's the better hitter?
Franco has followed Guerrero's exact development path so far -- advanced Rookie-level Appalachian League for his pro debut at 17, Class A and Class A Advanced at 18 -- and put up slightly better numbers. Guerrero batted .303/.401/.471 with 66 extra-base hits, 109 walks and 97 strikeouts in 181 games against pitchers mostly three or four years older than him, while Franco hit .336/.405/.523 with 71 extra-base knocks, 83 walks and 54 whiffs in 175 contests against similar older competition. Guerrero has advanced further because he's two years older and posted a .272/.339/.433 line as a 20-year-old rookie in Toronto last year.
Franco possesses the advantages of having a constant platoon advantage as a switch-hitter as well as superior speed. Guerrero bats strictly right-handed but also hits the ball as consistently hard as any young player some scouts have seen. In the end, that carried the day for Guerrero, who received 13 votes to Franco's four:
"Really, with either of them you can't go wrong. They're generational-type players as far as impact. As hitters, both project as future 8s. If I have to pick one, it's Vlad because he's already had a solid big league performance at age 20. Franco is on the same development path and has elite bat-to-ball and elite contact skills, but he doesn't have the track record. And the great tiebreaker too is bloodlines -- Vlad Sr. is in the Hall of Fame."
"I’d go with Vlad as the better, more complete hitter, largely because of the power projection. I’m not entirely buying into a ton of future physical projection on Wander, so I think Vlad will always hit for more power and will eventually become an absolutely dominant force at the plate. I’m not entirely sold on Wander’s approach as a left-handed hitter either. It's evident that it's not his natural side and I’m a little surprised that he’s had the kind of success vs right-handed pitchers that he’s had. He has special hands and the control of the strike zone appears to be dominant, so there’s definitely a ton to like there. Everything else about his left-handed swing is impressive outside of the slight leak/drift down the first-base line, something he doesn’t really display as a right-handed hitter."
"I think Wander will be the better hitter mainly because of his control of the strike zone and belief that the power will develop to consistent plus power. He already has some really good exit velo numbers for an 18-year-old in 2019 and once he learns to elevate a little more, it will be hard to find a flaw in his offensive game. His contact numbers are incredible and something that you can't teach, and I think the power will end up as a plus tool as well. I love Vlad Jr. but I’d give the edge to Wander as I think his ceiling is higher as he puts on strength."
"Vladdy Jr. for sure. He hits the ball much harder and has natural loft, meaning he’ll hit a lot more homers, making it tough for Franco to compete OPS wise (and we are talking about scoring runs and winning games, right?). Franco is a contact machine who will likely win a batting title or two, but works up the middle with mostly low liners."
"Wander is more the pure hitter because of the bat-to-ball skill edge and he also gets to avoid the side-on-side sliders being a switch-hitter. Wander also has a shorter load, stride and swing. Vladdy Jr. is a natural power hitter. Personally, I could not get to the 8 hit grade on him like MLB Pipeline, but would expect plus to plus-plus hit and power production. He's a big and strong young man with very hitterish actions and instincts. He's a dangerous-to-others commodity."
"While Vlad didn’t have the rookie year I expected, I think he’ll provide more offensive value at his peak than Franco as long as he’s able to lift the ball more frequently after being more ground ball-prone than anticipated. They have comparable contact ability, but Vlad’s offensive ceiling is a little higher due to his power and exit-velo advantages. With that said, if Franco does tap into more power, his profile could look a lot like peak Jose Ramirez."
"That's a great, great question. Last year in the Minor Leagues, Wander Franco was the best player I saw. I saw him [look] so good -- six games and I didn't see one swing and miss or strikeout. He hit the ball consistently well on the screws from both sides of the plate. I've also seen a lot of Vladdy too, and if I had to pick one of the other, I'm taking Vladdy."
"Wander because he’s going to get more leg hits, he'll be able to hit one through three in the order. He's a better left-hand hitter versus right at this time, doesn’t strike out much and if he’s got enough instincts at the plate he’ll be able to find his pitch better. Vlad has loud noises off his bat and more pop, both extra-base hits and home runs. If Vlad takes care of himself physically where he can perform, then its Vlad because he hits three through five in your order with much damage, but color me skeptical."
Who's the better long-term player?
While Guerrero and Franco are similar as hitters, they're very different in terms of all-around tools. Guerrero is a below-average runner who projects as an adequate third baseman who's going to wind up at first base or DH if he doesn't watch his conditioning. Franco owns solid speed, can play at least an average shortstop and at worst should be an asset at second or third base.
The consensus is that Guerrero can do more damage at the plate and that Franco can beat you in more ways, so whom you prefer is really a matter of personal taste. Our respondents preferred Franco by a narrow 9-8 margin:
"I think the positional/defensive value, along with what I think will be one of the better hitter profiles makes Wander more appealing to me. I actually think Vlad is better at third base than you’d think, but long term I’ll take the really good hitting shortstop. If Franco’s bat is Robinson Cano and a plus defender at short, I’ll take that over Manny Ramirez’s profile even if Vlad can stay at third base."
"Obviously Wander brings a ton of value as a middle-of-the-field defender, but I think Vlad’s bat is so superior over the long run a la Miguel Cabrera that you’d still end up taking his bat alone, even if he’s only a fringe defender, over Wander’s more balanced value on both sides of the ball. Not a knock on Wander at all. It’s hard to think of other scenarios where you wouldn’t take Wander. For me, it’s just a testament to how special Vlad’s bat is."
"Wander is the better all-around player for me as well. While I think it is close on the offensive side, as an all-around player Wander brings more value as he projects to be an above-average shortstop. Vlad Jr. is a slightly below average defender at third base and there is a real chance he has to move to first base in the future, which would really hurt his overall value."
"It's difficult because there are aspects of the game where Franco is going to play up the middle and his strikeout numbers are so low, but Vladdy is the closest to Miggy [Cabrera] I've ever seen. As good as Franco is, I don't know that anyone is a more natural hitter than Vladdy and he's hit at a higher level. And his power is going to be better, maybe 30 or 40 home runs."
"Wander. I am betting on the athlete, the body, the middle of the field, the makeup here as the separators for the more complete player and the one I would bet on being more sustainable over the long haul."
"This is an incredibly difficult decision! I’d lean towards Vlad due to his superior offensive upside and already being in the Majors, though Franco is really close due to his more well-rounded profile. At the same stages of their careers, I would’ve leaned towards Franco due to that higher defensive baseline and athleticism."
"Franco is a more well-rounded player with middle-infield defensive skills and a better body. Guerrero is probably headed to first base long term and his weight is a potential issue as he matures. Guerrero will be more impactful due to his bat in the short term but I think Franco has a chance to surpass him as he reaches his mid-20s."
"Something that gets unsaid or overlooked is how much they both love playing, competing and having fun doing it. I think they are both extremely talented but their profiles are unique to each of them. Both project to be impact Major League players for 10-plus years doing it differently. Both are very offensive and will be hitting in the top three-four spots in their respective lineups once settled into the Major Leagues. Wander has the defensive edge by being able to play in the middle of the infield but Vladdy Jr. has profile corner power plus. There’s not an organization out there that wouldn’t want either one of them or even wishing you had the other if you had one of them. It will be fun to watch them grow as players and see how much hardware they collect doing it."
We'll give the final word to an 18th executive who couldn't contain his enthusiasm for Guerrero and Franco but also couldn't bring himself to make a decision:
"Vlad Jr. and Wander Franco are both maestros with the bat. Vlad succeeded in the Major Leagues at 20 years old and handled his extraordinary expectations. He's a true phenom at the height of prospect mania with the advent of enhanced social media. Wander Franco enjoyed a phenomenal season, displays magnificent hitting ability, lands higher on the defensive spectrum and carries more athleticism. I anticipate Franco to build off his spectacular 2019 campaign and announce his presence in the Major Leagues at an accelerated pace.
"It's tough to bet against Vlad Jr. even though Vladimir may inevitably move across the diamond to first base defensively. His makeup, toughness and adjustability suggest that 2019 offensively was only an appetizer. The full course of plate discipline, elite power and high averages offensively will be on the menu for 2020 and thereafter. They're two amazingly gifted players that will help carry the torch for Major League Baseball into the next decade and beyond. Vlad wins the electoral college and Wander wins the popular vote."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.