Wander's vision: Big leagues this year

February 27th, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- has been the top prospect in baseball for two years in a row, even without playing a game above Class A ball. He’s spending his final days as a teenager in Major League Spring Training, and the countdown for his arrival has already begun.

There are great expectations for Franco -- and great questions, too.

When will he debut in the Majors? Where will he start the season? What position or positions will he play? Sure, he could almost certainly hold his own at the plate in the big leagues with his advanced approach, but is he ready for The Show?

He has an answer to that last one. Franco appreciates the recognition that comes with being ranked No. 1 on seemingly every prospect ranking in existence. “It feels awesome,” he said. But his lifelong dream was not to be a two-time top prospect.

“Of course, I'm ready to play in the big leagues,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I'm ready to achieve the goal that I've been trying to achieve since I was a little kid, to make it up to the big leagues.”

That is unlikely to take place on Opening Day, however. Franco hasn’t played in a game since 2019, although he spent last year at the Rays’ alternate training site and in their postseason player pool. They’re set at every infield position Franco might play with Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Díaz, Joey Wendle, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Mike Brosseau and others.

So if Franco starts the season with Triple-A Durham or Double-A Montgomery, he said, he’ll take it in stride.

“It's not in my control. If they send me to Double-A or wherever they send me, my job is to work,” Franco said. “I'm just going to continue with every opportunity that I get.”

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Rays general manager Erik Neander said Franco reported to his first big league camp in great shape. He dealt with some biceps inflammation and shoulder soreness while playing winter ball with Escogido in the Dominican Republic, but Franco said he feels fine with “no issues.” He spent the rest of the offseason training with Cleveland third baseman José Ramírez, who’s from Franco’s hometown of Bani in the Dominican Republic.

Franco said there isn’t a specific area of his game he wants to improve this spring. He called last year a “great experience,” even without any official games. He faced Major League-caliber pitching at Tampa Bay’s satellite camp, developed a friendship with Randy Arozarena and marveled at the rookie outfielder’s focus and work ethic while witnessing his postseason breakout.

“I like to give him advice, but also, he's a really good player,” said Arozarena, who’s spent a lot of time with Franco during workouts this week. “So, I like to also get some advice from him.”

The Rays will soon get another up-close look at the switch-hitting shortstop’s skill at the plate. Franco could enter the club’s Grapefruit League opener on Sunday as a backup, and he’s tentatively scheduled to start Tuesday’s nationally televised game against the Red Sox as Tampa Bay’s designated hitter.

During defensive drills at the Rays’ Charlotte Sports Park complex on Saturday morning, Franco lined up at shortstop while working with a prospect-filled group of infielders on Field 2. He said he’s also willing to play second or third base in the future if the opportunity arises, but he noted that the Rays haven’t talked to him yet about moving around the infield.

“[Franco's] got a great glove and good arm and knows how to kind of manage a game a little bit as far as playing shortstop, which has been impressive,” Rays pitching prospect Shane Baz said. “And obviously, the bat speaks for itself.”

Indeed, where Franco plays in the field is less important than how he hits, and how he’ll hit has never been a question. Tagged with an 80-grade hit tool by MLB Pipeline, Franco put together a .336/.405/.523 slash line with 20 homers, 14 triples, 37 doubles and far more walks (83) than strikeouts (54) in 175 Minor League games from 2018-19.

“Obviously an incredible talent with immense potential,” Neander said. “Don’t want to put any undue pressure on him. Want to just make sure that, when the time’s right for him to impact our Major League club, that he’s ready in all aspects of his development.”

And when might that be? Great question. Neander gave an admittedly “very vague answer” about Franco’s development timeline on Tuesday, one centered around the industry-wide uncertainty about how to handle prospects who went a year without daily competition in the Minor Leagues.

“Be it Wander or any of our younger players that had that experience last year, probably the most honest answer is you don't really know,” Neander said. “We’re just going to do the best that we can to put them in the right spot.”

At some point this season, Franco believes, that spot will be with the Rays at Tropicana Field.

“This year, I'm really just focused on getting into the big leagues,” Franco said.