Rays may be grooming next teenage phenom

Appalachian League Player of the Year Franco, 17, 'can do everything on a field'

September 4th, 2018

Wander Franco's gameday routine officially starts when he struts into H.P. Hunnicutt Field, pushes through the metal door of the Princeton Rays' cramped home clubhouse and steps on the blue carpet.

First, he devours a large bowl of fruit. Then come the fist bumps, the handshakes and the playful greetings from his teammates as he makes his way past the two card tables in the middle of the musty-smelling room to his blue locker.

"Bueno días, Patrón!"

"Good afternoon, Patrón."

"Patrón, let's get a win today!"

Patrón, which loosely translates in English to "boss man," is what Franco's teammates call him, and so far, the teenager has lived up to the nickname. At 17, Franco was named the Appalachian League's Player of The Year, and the Rookie League star already has the baseball world wondering if he will follow in the footsteps of Washington's Juan Soto and Atlanta's as the next international prospect to play in the big leagues as a teenager, or if he will take a more deliberate path.

"We'll see how his career goes, but here's a young guy that's very mature at 17, and he has a smile on his face and plays every game like every game is the final game of the World Series," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays' director of Minor League operations. "I call him 'Wonderful Wander Franco' for more reasons than him being the league MVP. It's about who he is and how he goes about his business, and the wonderful person that Wander Franco is."

Franco, whom MLB Pipeline ranks No. 4 among Tampa Bay prospects and 40th in baseball, sported a .351 batting average and slugged .587 with a .418 on-base percentage in 242 at-bats in 61 regular-season games for Princeton. He also racked up 10 doubles, seven triples and 11 home runs with 57 runs driven in. He walked more times (27) than he struck out (19).

He went 5-for-13 with four RBIs, a run scored and a walk in the three Appalachian League East Division Semifinal games against the Bluefield Blue Jays over the weekend to advance to the final. The league's Championship Series between the Rays and the Elizabethton Twins starts Tuesday in Princeton.

"He can do everything on a field," one National League scout said. "There's a plus bat from both sides and projectable raw power that he's barely scratching the surface of right now. He can run, he can pick it at shortstop and the arm is strong. He's real."

Scouts gush over Franco's hand-eye coordination, his quick hands at the plate and his ability to recognize pitches. The teenager also has an uncanny ability to barrel up baseballs.

But like many prospects his age, Franco is a work in progress. He needs to experience the workload of a full season and take the several hundred at-bats that come with it. He's also still working on using his legs more during his swing and learning the finer points of being a professional.

"I'm learning this game is about adjustments, adjusting to the pitchers that are trying to get you out," Franco said. "My goal and what I am working hard for, is to make it the Major Leagues so I can have a good career and help my family. That's all I want to do."

Franco's big league debut might not come for a couple of years. It could happen when he reaches his 20s. Here's what we know: Franco currently shares a stadium and a clubhouse with a local West Virginia high school team, another sign of how far away he is from Tropicana Field.

"He was at the right level and there's nothing wrong with having a great kid have a great year like he did, and he turned out to be league MVP," Lukevics said. "We're known as a conservative organization. But were more so conservative with the lower levels in terms of getting the players acclimated to the league, apartment living, living on their own and all of the nuances that come with being a first-year professional baseball player."

Franco will participate in the club's instructional league in Florida later this month. Where he goes from there remains to be seen. How Wander Samuel Franco reached this point can be traced back to a dirt field in Bani, Dominican Republic.

Franco's father, also named Wander, pitched in the Minors with the White Sox. He passed down his love of the game -- and his name -- to his sons. Some days, the Franco brothers spent all day fielding ground balls on the rocky terrain of the baseball field near their childhood home.

When the boys weren't busy chasing bad hops, they were in the backyard or on a nearby street swinging a broomstick at large water jug caps in a game called "vitilla." Think stickball, only much harder.

The work paid off. The shortstop's oldest brother, Wander Javier Franco, 23, and his second-oldest brother, Wander Alexander Franco, 21, are Minor Leaguers in the Giants' organization. Wander Javier was recently named the Offensive Player of the Year for Class A Advanced San Jose. It helped that their uncles, former Major League infielders Erick and Willy Aybar, were around to offer tips and guidance.

The Francos also had the advantage of growing up in the same neighborhood as Indians third baseman . Ask Ramirez about the youngest Franco, and his face lights up. He pounds his chest a few times, the universal sign for "that's my boy."

"I have him over to my house, we practice, we train together, I'm helping him a lot," Ramirez said. "He's good. Better than me. He has more strength, more of everything. He really knows how to play."

Franco's training began in earnest at age 10 when joined a family friend named Oritel "Chiqui" Peguero. "Chiqui" had his own baseball program, but it was small, and he only had a few kids. He did, however, have relationships with well-known trainers at much bigger programs. One of those trainers was Rudy Santin, a former Major League scout and executive that had spent a combined 27 years with the Yankees, Rays and Giants before becoming a player trainer in 2011.

"I was on a trip to Bani to look at a pitcher to add to my program, and I asked Chiqui if he had anyone else to see. He told me he had a 10-year-old that was a natural," said Santin, who was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame in 2008. "I'm like, 'OK, sure.' But as soon as the kid got to the second ground ball, I'm like, 'Wow, this guy is special.' He looked like a miniature big leaguer. I wanted to work with Wander right then, but he was too young, so I left him a pair of spikes and a glove and told them to call me in a few years."

A little more than two years later, Chiqui sent Franco to Santin's MVP Sports Academy in Santo Domingo, D.R. The longtime scout was so excited that he held a press conference at a local restaurant to announce the news a few weeks after Franco turned 13.

"I invited all of the press and told everybody that this kid will be legit and they're looking at the next superstar," Satin said. "People were telling me I'm nuts. They were all laughing at this crazy man saying this kid is going to be special. The radio stations killed me. Everyone destroyed me, but I was right."

Under Santin's guidance, Franco visited MLB team academies in the D.R., starred in showcases and worked out on the tryout circuit that's common for top international prospects. The Rays first laid eyes on him back in 2014 while scouting outfielder , who was also in Santin's program. The Rays signed Sanchez, now No. 3 on the club's prospect list, on July 2 that year. They signed Franco, then the No. 1 prospect on the international market, on July 2, 2017, for $3.85 million.

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"The truth is, it is so incredibly difficult for the stars to align with the talent, the cultivation of that talent and for the player to be in the hands of a trainer who puts him in the position to succeed and get proper evaluation," said Tampa Bay director of international scouting Carlos Rodriguez. "And then you have to be in the financial position to compete. It's one thing to identify the guy, it's another thing to be able to sign him. But through hard work and over time, teams are rewarded for the commitment to the international market and development. We are seeing that with Wander."

Franco's development could still propel him into Soto's and Acuna's exclusive big league club, but the Rays are not taking any chances with him.

"We are the Tampa Bay Rays. We are who we are," Lukevics said. "We depend and rely on our scouting and player development system on domestic or international more than any team in baseball and we have less margin of error here. If some teams have errors, they can go buy some players. We don't have that luxury, so we would want to do what's right for the player and err on the side of caution."