The game’s top Minor League talent has arrived in the Major Leagues.
Top MLB Pipeline prospect Wander Franco has been called up by the Rays and will make his Major League debut with the club tonight in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay has announced. Already the youngest player on a Triple-A Opening Day roster, Franco becomes the first 2001-born player to reach the game’s top level.
It is, of course, the bat that has driven Franco to this spot on the game’s biggest stage. The switch-hitter is one of only two players ever to earn an 80-grade hit tool since MLB Pipeline first ranked prospects 10 years ago. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the other. It isn’t hard to see how Franco earned those grades. To watch him is to see a hitter with exceptional bat speed and incredible bat control. Franco has little issue driving the ball to all fields and typically makes strong swing decisions, thanks to an approach that belies his age and experience.
Because of those skills, the Rays have been aggressive with Franco since he first signed for $3,825,000 out of the Dominican Republic on July 2, 2017. Tampa Bay skipped the infielder right over the Dominican and Florida complexes and sent him to Rookie Advanced Princeton for his first taste of the Minors in 2018 as a 17-year-old. Franco hit .351/.418/.587 with 11 homers, 27 walks and 19 strikeouts in 61 games in the Appalachian League that summer. He led the entire circuit with 142 total bases despite being the same age as a high-school junior.
Franco continued to produce at two full-season levels in 2019. He put together a .327/.398/.487 line with nine homers, 56 walks and only 35 strikeouts in 114 games between Class A Bowling Green and Class A Advanced Charlotte.
Between those 2018 and 2019 seasons, there were 1,335 Minor Leaguers who accrued at least 500 plate appearances. Franco was one of only two of those 1,335 to hit at least .300 (.336), slug at least .500 (.523) and walk more times than he struck out (1.5 BB/K). Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk was the other.
Despite having not reached Double-A yet, Franco participated at the Rays’ alternate site last year and was included as a member of the postseason taxi squad, just in case his MLB debut was to come in the playoffs like it did for fellow Top-100 prospect Shane McClanahan.
That comes now instead with the news of his upcoming promotion following a solid turn at Triple-A Durham. Franco produced a .315/.367/.586 line over his 39-game run with the Bulls. He was especially hot of late with a .371/.405/.686 line, 12 extra-base hits and only 10 strikeouts in 17 June contests, prompting Tampa Bay to deem him ready at this stage of the season.
The biggest things to follow in Franco’s continued development are his power and his defensive home.
Franco’s power has been behind his hit tool for much of his career, but many evaluators believe the 5-foot-10 slugger has the capacity for plus power in time as his body and talent matured. He showed he’s capable of that when he crushed a ball out of Charlotte Sports Park during Spring Training in March, and that progression continued early at Triple-A, where he picked up his first career grand slam on May 15. Franco will put the ball in play plenty, but it’ll be interesting to see how much he can continue to grow that power against some of the best arms the game has to offer.
On the defensive side, Franco was signed and initially developed as a straight shortstop, and he is capable of being average at that position. But a Rays farm system loaded at that position and the presence of Willy Adames (since traded to the Brewers) in the Majors pushed Franco to try out both second and third base at last year’s alternate site. That work at both spots continued this year at Durham, where he shared an infield with current Tampa Bay shortstop Taylor Walls. No one values versatility more than the Rays and manager Kevin Cash, so expect Franco to continue to move around the dirt as he finds his footing in St. Petersburg.
Wherever he lands in the field, his bat will certainly play at the plate, and now, the world will get an even closer look at one of the most promising hitters to rise through the Minor League ranks in recent memory.