4 big questions about Wander's extension

November 30th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Monday was an exciting day for the Rays. With dozens of staff members crowding into the Rays Club at Tropicana Field, shortstop took his seat at a podium alongside president of baseball operations Erik Neander and principal owner Stu Sternberg to discuss the contract extension that should keep Franco in a Rays uniform for years to come.

When officials describe Franco, the truth tends to sound like hyperbole.

“We’ve got a lot of good players on our team. Wander, he stood out. He really stood out,” manager Kevin Cash said. “To know that he’s 20 years old and he’s only going to get better for many years to come, it should be exciting.”

“The sky’s the limit. Really, truly,” Neander said. “The abilities -- the switch-hit, the contact, the defensive abilities, the feel for the game, the baseball IQ -- it’s all there and sets him up for what could be a historic career.”

If Franco does go on to enjoy a historic career, then Monday will have been a historic day for the franchise. Here’s a look at how Franco’s deal -- which guarantees him $182 million over 11 years -- fits in the Rays’ long-term plans.

1. Why did Franco and the Rays get this done now?
Franco, with 104 days of Major League service, is the fifth player with less than a year of big league time to sign a long-term extension with the Rays, joining Evan Longoria (24 days in 2008), Matt Moore (17 days in 2011), Chris Archer (156 days in 2014) and Brandon Lowe (58 days in 2019).

It's a risk for the Rays, betting on a player with only 70 career games under his belt. It’s a risk for Franco, passing up on the opportunity to earn what fellow star shortstops like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Francisco Lindor received through their own extensions or what a free agent like Carlos Correa is set to make on the open market.

But for Franco, the reasons were simple. The 20-year-old shortstop said he wants to spend his whole career with the Rays. He wanted to be loyal to the team that signed him in the first place. He couldn’t pass up a financial commitment that will allow him to take care of his family and mostly set aside the business of the game for a decade or more. And now, he wants to help the Rays win a World Series championship.

The Rays’ reasons weren’t much more complicated. Future superstars like Franco don’t come around often, and he wanted to stay for the long haul. How could they pass on a chance to make that happen?

“This is an exceptional talent. It's a person that's driven to be a star in this game and has shown that by his work ethic as well,” Neander said. “It's a large commitment. There's a lot of different ways this could go, but if not now on Wander, then when?

“We just felt, given his desire to be here and the relationships that are in place, that this was a unique opportunity to extend a commitment to an incredibly talented player for a long time and to give our fans something that they can look forward to and trust is going to be here for quite a while now.”

2. How is Franco’s contract structured?
Like most pre-arbitration extensions are. He will receive a $5 million signing bonus, and the following yearly salaries:

2022: $1 million
2023-24: $2 million each
2025: $8 million
2026: $15 million
2027: $22 million
2028-32: $25 million each
2033: $25 million club option, or a $2 million buyout

The deal includes salary escalators if Franco finishes in the top five of the American League MVP Award voting, incentives that can raise the deal’s total value to $223 million over 12 years.

That’s basically in line with how Franco’s pay would have escalated through a more traditional path in which he had three pre-arbitration years and three arbitration-eligible seasons before becoming a free agent. His salaries are relatively modest the first three years, then they climb significantly each year for three seasons and finally peak at $25 million annually at the point he would have reached free agency.

3. How does this deal align with the club’s search for a new ballpark?
The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, when Franco moves into $25 million-per-year territory that’s uncharted for Tampa Bay. So it’s fair to say their future beyond that is uncertain.

The Rays have considered ballpark options on both sides of the bay over the years, and they’re currently pushing to explore a split-season strategy that would have them start future seasons in Tampa Bay then move north to Montreal for the rest of their home schedule. They are currently committed to Franco longer than they are bound to any ballpark but confident Franco will remain with them, wherever they are, for a long time.

"We, the Rays, are committed to fielding a competitive team year in and year out, as we have done and we expect to do so," Sternberg said. "We will continue to use all the resources available to us to continue the standard of excellence that we've established, and Wander -- we know -- is going to be a dramatic part of that for many years to come."

4. What does that mean about how long they might keep Franco?
It doesn’t mean anything for certain. Franco made it clear on Monday that he wants to stay in Tampa Bay. The Rays made it equally clear that they want Franco to be the centerpiece of a sustainable small-market contender for the next decade or longer. As Sternberg quipped during Monday morning’s news conference, “If all goes well, I'll be well into my 70s and Wander will still be here.”

If it doesn’t pan out, or if the Rays eventually decide it’s in the team’s best interest to trade Franco, they will be able to move him. Franco’s contract does not include a no-trade clause, a provision the Rays typically avoid, although he will receive a $3 million assignment bonus if he’s dealt to another team.

But it seems likely that the Rays are counting on increased revenues -- perhaps through a new ballpark or, if the Montreal plan leads to any sort of action by 2028, ballparks -- to offset the eventual increased cost of their franchise player down the road, keep Franco for the long haul and build contending teams around him. Asked how Franco’s contract fits into the club’s present and future budgets to make that all work, Sternberg said the Rays are taking an optimistic approach.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to work within whatever confines we have as well as anyone in the game,” Sternberg said. “We’re not making excuses or anything like that, but yeah, we would anticipate and expect that if we do our jobs here, revenues can go up somewhat and it makes it easier to afford. Certainly, the way the contract is structured, (a significant salary increase for Franco) is a few years out.

“For right now, it fits where we need to be, and we believe it’s right sized for where we will be a few years out.”