In the next week or so, Wander Franco will report to the Rays’ big league Spring Training camp for the first time. On March 1, he’ll turn 20 years old.
The dynamic young shortstop, MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect two years in a row, will play this entire season at the same age as your average college sophomore or junior. There will likely be one question asked about Franco, the switch-hitter with an 80-grade hit tool, more than any other: When will the Rays call him up?
That got us thinking: If Franco makes his Major League debut this year, as many around the industry expect, where would he rank among the youngest Rays players ever at the time of their big league debut?
Franco won’t be the youngest player to debut in the Majors, of course. Within the last three years, we’ve seen the Blue Jays’ Elvis Luciano take the field at 19 years, 105 days and the Nationals’ Juan Soto immediately thrive as a teenager (19 years, 202 days). A pair of 20-year-olds debuted just last season: Washington infielder Luis García (20 years, 90 days) and new Rays right-hander Luis Patiño (20 years, 284 days in his debut for the Padres).
Whether it’s this year or next, Franco won’t be the youngest player to take the field in a Tampa Bay uniform. Here’s a look at the earliest debuts, by age, in franchise history.
B.J. Upton: 19 years, 347 days
Debut: Aug. 2, 2004
Drafted second overall in the 2002 Draft, Upton played 130 games in the Minors in ’03 and 98 in ’04 before the then-Devil Rays called him up. Heading into that season, Upton was the No. 2 prospect in the Minors, according to Baseball America, behind only Joe Mauer. He remains the only teenager to play for the Rays.
Tampa Bay called up Upton and gave him his first start on Aug. 2, 2004, a 6-3 loss against Boston. And how’s this for a first assignment? He made his debut as the designated hitter against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Batting ninth, Upton went 1-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout.
“I’m just happy I hit the ball,” Upton told the St. Petersburg Times after his first game, during which he wore No. 35.
Eventually known as a center fielder, Upton spent most of his first 45 games in the Majors playing shortstop and third base while mixing in time as the DH and making one start in left field. He played a full season for Triple-A Durham in 2005 then returned in '06 as a third baseman, split the ’07 season between center field and second base then moved to center full-time for the Rays in ’08.
Chad Gaudin: 20 years, 130 days
Debut: Aug. 1, 2003
A 34th-round Draft pick in 2001 out of Crescent City Baptist High School (Harahan, La.), the right-hander put together a 2.26 ERA in Class A during his pro debut in ’02, breezed through Class A Advanced the next year, made three dominant starts for Double-A Orlando and arrived in the Majors to pitch 2 1/3 innings out of Tampa Bay’s bullpen against Kansas City on Aug. 1, 2003.
Gaudin began his 11-year big league career by going 3-2 with a 4.25 ERA in 41 outings over two seasons with the Devil Rays. On Dec. 12, 2004, they traded him to the Blue Jays for a 27-year-old catcher by the name of Kevin Cash.
Scott Kazmir: 20 years, 212 days
Debut: Aug. 23, 2004
The Mets were roundly criticized for trading Kazmir, their first-round pick in 2002, to get Victor Zambrano. Kazmir eventually proved those critics correct, as he went 45-34 with a 3.51 ERA and two All-Star nods from 2005-08 and started Game 1 during the Rays’ first trip to the World Series.
The lefty flew through the Minors, joining Tampa Bay’s Double-A Montgomery affiliate after the 2004 Trade Deadline, then skipping Triple-A to make his debut in a 9-0 win over the Mariners in Seattle. Kazmir pitched five innings against a lineup led by Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez.
Carl Crawford: 20 years, 349 days
Debut: July 20, 2002
The Rays’ first true homegrown star, Crawford was selected in the second round of the 1999 Draft then steadily but speedily climbed to the Majors. He played Rookie-level ball in ’99, Class A in 2000, Double-A in ’01 and Triple-A in ’02 before making his entrance as the Devil Rays’ No. 9-hitting left fielder in a 12-10 loss to the Blue Jays. Crawford went 1-for-4 with two RBIs in his debut.
Crawford went on to become one of the Rays’ most accomplished players. In nine seasons, he hit .296/.337/.444 with 104 homers, 105 triples, 215 doubles, 592 RBIs and 409 stolen bases. He earned four All-Star nods (plus one All-Star Game MVP), a Silver Slugger Award and one Gold Glove before becoming a free agent after the 2010 season.
Delmon Young: 20 years, 349 days
Debut: Aug. 29, 2006
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 Draft and Baseball America’s top prospect entering the '06 season, Young reached the Majors and played well in his debut. He went 2-for-3 with a homer in his first game, a 12-9 loss to the White Sox, and hit .317 in his first 30 games. Young finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting in '07, when he hit .288 with 93 RBIs in 162 games.
The Rays promptly traded Young to the Twins that offseason for a return headlined by Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, beginning a trade tree that has been fruitful for the franchise for 13 years and counting.
Rocco Baldelli: 21 years, 187 days
Debut: March 31, 2003
The sixth overall pick in the 2000 Draft, Baldelli arrived with so much promise on Opening Day in 2003 after playing only 290 games in the Minors. Batting second and starting in center field, he doubled off Pedro Martinez in the fourth inning -- his first hit -- and stood on deck when Crawford ended the game with a three-run, walk-off homer in the ninth.
Baldelli finished third in the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting after slashing .289/.326/.416 with 11 homers, 78 RBIs and 27 steals, and he enjoyed a 3-WAR season in ’04. Medical issues limited him after that, although he was part of the Rays’ worst-to-first turnaround in 2008 and finished his playing career with the team in ’10. He remained involved with the team for years before becoming the Twins' manager.
Kenny Kelly: 21 years, 225 days
Debut: Sept. 7, 2000
The Tampa Catholic High School product and former University of Miami quarterback, a second-round pick in the 1997 Draft, made the leap from Double-A to debut as a pinch-runner, but he only recorded one plate appearance in two games for his hometown team.
Dan Wheeler: 21 years, 265 days
Debut: Sept. 1, 1999
The right-hander is best remembered for his second stint with the Rays as a key veteran in their bullpen from 2008-10. But his 13-year career in the Majors began as a 21-year-old starter for the Devil Rays a little more than three years after he was drafted in the 34th round. Wheeler lost his debut, a 3-1 defeat against the Orioles, despite allowing only two runs over five innings. He spent time with the Mets and Astros before returning to Tampa Bay in a 2007 trade for Ty Wigginton.
José Alvarado: 21 years, 347 days
Debut: May 3, 2017
You might have noticed a theme above: All the earliest debuts took place before the team dropped the “Devil” and became the Rays. But Alvarado ends that trend, as the Venezuelan lefty reliever had not yet turned 22 when he emerged from Tampa Bay’s bullpen and gave up three runs in an inning of work during a 10-6 loss to Miami at Tropicana Field.
Alvarado made his professional debut during his age-17 season, the first of his two years in the Venezuelan Summer League. He spent parts of four more seasons in the Minors, steadily working his way up and moving into a full-time relief role in 2016. He posted a 3.46 ERA with 161 strikeouts in 132 2/3 innings over 149 outings with the Rays before being traded to the Phillies on Dec. 29.