What Franco's megadeal means for Rays

November 27th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Rays were ever going to break character and commit to a massive, nine-figure contract extension, it was going to be for a player like .

It’s easy to understand why the Rays were interested in locking him up for the next decade and beyond. And it’s not hard to comprehend why Franco would agree to the record-setting 11-year, $182 million guaranteed extension, with a club option for a 12th year and the potential to earn up to $223 million.

Now, Franco is poised to take his place as Tampa Bay’s next face of the franchise. He’ll fittingly follow in the footsteps of former Ray , the most accomplished player in club history, who accepted a multiyear extension at the outset of his career in 2008 after heeding teammate Eric Hinske’s advice: “Never turn down your first fortune.”

We’ll learn more about the motivations behind the extension in the coming days, as Franco and club officials are scheduled to discuss the contract extension in a news conference at Tropicana Field on Monday at 11:30 a.m. ET, but here are three things we can take away from the news now that it’s official.

1. The Rays believe in what they’ve seen from Franco
Franco played 70 games in the Majors. He has 308 plate appearances to his name. After skipping Double-A, he spent 40 games with Triple-A Durham. Including the 11 games he has played in the Dominican Winter League, in fact, Franco has all of 296 games of professional experience. And the Rays just committed at least $182 million to him.

But Franco is not like most players, of course. The 20-year-old shortstop came up as a can’t-miss phenom in the Minors. It took about three weeks for him to find his footing in the Majors; the Rays knew it would be an adjustment for him, and it was. After his first 15 games, Franco was hitting .197 with a .585 OPS. During that stretch, he had his first career three-strikeout game and a four-strikeout performance we may not see from him again.

After that, Franco looked like the star the Rays expected and finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting. The two-time top overall prospect slashed .314/.372/.500 with five homers, five triples, 16 doubles and nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (22) in his final 55 games. He reached base in 43 straight games, a stretch in which he had more hits than swinging strikes, showing the plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills that made him such a touted prospect. His talent might have been matched only by his infectious energy.

Overall, Franco was worth 3.5 Wins Above Replacement in only 70 games, according to Baseball-Reference. It’s perhaps not the most advanced statistical analysis to double that number and assume that’s what he’ll produce over a full season, but if he does maintain that level of performance, he’d be in a class with legitimately elite position players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (6.8 bWAR this season), Juan Soto (7.1), Carlos Correa (7.2) and Marcus Semien (7.3).

And now that he’s settled in, Franco is probably only going to get better. He has never been anything but elite despite being years younger than his peers. So imagine the player he is now and project what he could become over the next 11 or 12 years. That’s someone worth investing in.

2. Franco didn’t have to settle, and he can still bet on himself
You could argue that Franco left money on the table by signing this early. waited two seasons and wound up with a 14-year, $340 million contract with the Padres. went through the arbitration process with Cleveland, then secured a 10-year, $341 million extension with the Mets.

While Franco will likely outperform his earnings, as most young players do, the deal he and agent Manny Paula achieved isn’t exactly selling him short. Considering their prior earnings and the annual salaries within their extensions, here’s what Lindor and Tatis are set to make from Year 2 to Year 11 of their careers, compared to what we know about Franco’s guarantee:

Lindor, 2016-26: $233.09 million (or $265.09 million through Year 12)
Tatis, 2020-30: $196.59 million (or $232.59 million through Year 12)
Franco, 2022-32: $182 million (or up to $223 million through Year 12)

They’re not perfectly in line, with Lindor and Tatis also guaranteed big money beyond those seasons, while Franco secured his first fortune at a much younger age. But they’re in the same ballpark, and both Lindor and Tatis were more proven than Franco when they hit it big. Franco has the distinction of signing the sport’s largest contract for a player prior to turning 21 years old and the biggest contract for a player with less than one year of Major League service time.

Furthermore, while Lindor will be 38 when his contract expires and Tatis will be 36; Franco will be just 32 after his final guaranteed season and 33 after his club option year. By then, he still should have another chance to sign a big multiyear contract -- or a second extension.

3. What makes this deal different for the Rays?
The Rays are known for locking up their young stars. Longoria signed a club-friendly deal as a rookie and another extension in 2012. , and all signed early. inked a five-year deal after winning the 2018 AL Cy Young Award. is still playing out a long-term extension. The list goes on.

But Tampa Bay has never committed to this kind of salary.

Longoria’s second extension -- six years and $100 million, added to the four years and $36.6 million he was already due -- previously held the record for the largest contract in Rays history. Franco will blow by that. According to Cot’s Contracts, Tampa Bay has spent a total of $348.38 million in free agency since the club’s inaugural season in 1998. Franco will earn more than half of that.

It took the right player, and Franco seems to be exactly that. The question is why this was the right time.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, the sixth year of Franco’s extension. Team leadership is committed to exploring and pursuing a split-season plan between Tampa Bay and Montreal. Are they counting on additional revenue streams from a new ballpark (or ballparks), something changing as a result of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement or just a young roster that allows them to invest more heavily in one star player?

Or could history repeat itself with Franco? The Rays have a track record of dealing away players -- even their homegrown stars -- as their salaries increase and they approach free agency. Longoria, Moore and Archer were traded during their deals. James Shields and David Price are the two best pitchers in franchise history, and both were traded near the end of their club control. So was Snell. Kiermaier’s name often comes up in trade rumors. Again, the list goes on.

That’s become how the Rays do business and continue to contend in the AL East despite one of the Majors’ lowest payrolls. Franco did not receive a no-trade clause in his extension, so it’s at least possible that he could eventually be traded, too.

Or perhaps this time is different, in part because Franco is locked up through his prime years and not into his mid-30s. Maybe the Rays are committing to their young star as a foundational piece of the franchise for the next dozen years. If they were ever going to do it, it would be for a player like Franco.