'Homegrown star' Franco eyes championship

November 29th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG – After signing his record-setting contract extension on Saturday, is going to be with the Rays for the foreseeable future. His new deal runs through 2032, with a club option for '33. Franco hopes that is just the beginning.

The 20-year-old wants to be a Ray for life.

"The Rays have given me the support that I need, the development, the people that they have here," Franco said during a press conference at the Rays Club at Tropicana Field. "I wish to stay here for my whole career."

Franco is guaranteed $182 million over the next 11 years, and he can earn up to $223 million over the next 12 years. Franco, principal owner Stu Sternberg and president of baseball operations Erik Neander discussed the unprecedented extension on Monday morning, with Sternberg calling it "really a great day for Wander and the Rays" and Neander adding that it was a big moment for Tampa Bay fans and the entire baseball industry.

"The chance for a homegrown star to be with the club for the foreseeable future, that in and of itself is a really big deal," Neander said. "Our on-field goal is to win a World Series, and as we've said many times over now, our desired approach to making that happen is to be as competitive as possible in as many years as possible. … This commitment certainly increases our confidence that we're going to continue to be competitive and eventually be that last team standing."

That was Franco's focus, too, even in the afterglow of receiving the largest financial commitment in Rays history and the biggest deal for a player with less than a year of service time. Dressed in a powder blue suit and smiling throughout the 20-minute press conference, Franco said he signed for the long haul because the Rays gave him his first opportunity in professional baseball.

The agreement will come with challenges and responsibilities, with Franco likely handling all that comes along with being the face of Tampa Bay's franchise after only 70 games in the Majors. But the star shortstop said he sees this lengthy commitment as an opportunity, not a responsibility.

"I'm really happy for this opportunity, and the one thing I want to do is bring a championship to the organization," Franco said, with Latin American cultural coordinator Jairo De La Rosa interpreting. "With this, I can help my family and have nothing in my mind when I'm playing on the field … and be happy with this opportunity."

After about a month of exploratory talks and active negotiations between the Rays and Franco's agent, Manny Paula, the two sides found the common ground necessary for this kind of long-term and high-priced extension. On the field, their outlooks were already aligned: Franco wants to win a World Series, and the Rays believe they can do so with him as a focal point of their roster.

"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."

Franco slashed .288/.347/.463 with 18 doubles, five triples and seven homers in his debut, put together a historic 43-game on-base streak from July 25-Sept. 29 and finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting. His 3.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, ranked third in AL history among position players with 70 games or fewer.

There are risks associated this deal, as is often the case. Franco may be passing up an opportunity to make more later in his career by pushing back free agency. And the Rays are making a significant, franchise-record investment in one player, albeit an extraordinarily talented one, coming off an abbreviated rookie season.

But the Rays have known and observed Franco for longer than just half a season, building relationships that were on display in the back of the room Monday morning. There was Danny Santana, the scout who signed Franco out of the Dominican Republic and built a relationship with his family -- including his father, also named Wander, who was at Franco's side all weekend. There was Carlos Rodriguez, the Rays VP who oversaw Tampa Bay's scouting and signing of Franco. And there was manager Kevin Cash, who helped Franco make a smooth transition to the Majors from the moment he arrived on June 22.

Cash said the Rays are confident Franco will be able to handle the attention sure to follow a massive contract like this, just as they saw him shine under the spotlight as the game's two-time top prospect. Perhaps illustrating that point, Franco said, "The one thing I want to do is play baseball. If people come to me talking about money, I don't think I'm going to pay too much attention to them."

"The talent we've all seen, you've all seen on the field," Sternberg said. "But as a person and as an individual -- the way he carries himself, everything we understand, everything I've seen and that has been passed to me about him was of equal importance."