'No concern' for Franco, who snaps 0-fer

June 27th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- No, the Rays aren’t worried about a few hitless games from .

Franco, baseball’s top prospect, made a big splash in his Major League debut on Tuesday by drawing an impressive walk in his first plate appearance, blasting a game-tying three-run homer in the fifth inning and crushing a double off the left-field wall in the seventh. But the 20-year-old switch-hitter went hitless with five strikeouts in his next 16 at-bats entering Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Angels at Tropicana Field.

Franco snapped his skid in the sixth inning with a leadoff single against lefty Patrick Sandoval, ending his hitless streak at 0-for-18.

Three of Franco’s five strikeouts came in one game Thursday against the Red Sox, his first career three-strikeout game at any professional level. He has still managed to work some impressive at-bats, like the one that led to a bases-loaded walk in the seventh inning of the Rays’ 13-3 rout of the Angels on Saturday night and the walk he drew in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon.

And six of the first 14 balls Franco put in play qualified as hard-hit, with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, according to Statcast. Only two of those went for hits: his debut homer and double.

“Nothing that we’re concerned about,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said Saturday night. “[On Friday], he just misses the ball off a lefty, flies out to left. He flew out to left [on Saturday] again. He smoked a ball that their right fielder made a nice play on.

“He keeps hitting balls hard like that, they’re going to find holes. But no concern whatsoever. Thrilled that we have him.”

Those interested in parsing the smallest of sample sizes might note that Franco entered Sunday with two hits, two walks and no strikeouts in eight plate appearances against lefties, while going 0-for-13 with all five of his strikeouts against right-handers. Franco was better against left-handers in Triple-A Durham to start this season, but he’s the consensus best prospect in baseball for a reason. He mashed right-handers as a Minor Leaguer in 2018 (1.062 OPS) and ’19 (.921 OPS) -- and, for that matter, in Durham (.900 OPS when batting left-handed).

Cash also praised Franco for the way he has recovered from mistakes on defense. The shortstop struggled to make a play Saturday on a third-inning Taylor Ward grounder, then he bounced back with a nice play in the fifth and teamed up with Brandon Lowe to turn an inning-ending double play in the eighth.

All-Star status
The Rays have no finalists in the fan voting phase of the All-Star Game balloting, but Cash believes they have plenty of worthy candidates.

No Tampa Bay players were among the top three vote-getters at their positions, or among the top nine outfielders. (Pitchers are not included in the fan voting.) That means the Rays will have to find other ways onto the American League All-Star team, which will be managed by Cash at Coors Field.

Among those Cash mentioned as being worthy of consideration: starters (despite his injury) and ; infielder ; catcher ; outfielders , and ; and pretty much anyone in the Rays' bullpen, including , , and .

Arozarena received the most votes of any Rays player, finishing 11th among AL outfielders with 569,256 votes. Zunino finished eighth among AL catchers, Ji-Man Choi seventh at first base, Brandon Lowe ninth at second, Wendle eighth at shortstop and Meadows ninth among designated hitters.

“It would be very cool, because every player wants that as a goal of theirs, to be in an All-Star Game,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “So that's something I would definitely cherish and appreciate if that were to happen.”

Zunino has a particularly compelling case, despite his low batting average, given his combination of excellent work behind the plate and his 16 home runs entering Sunday -- the most by any big league catcher.

“There’s a reason this team has been so successful over the last couple years, and it's because we have really, really talented players -- and Zunino is very, very talented,” Cash said. “What he's done power/home run-wise speaks for itself. What he does behind the plate, some of those things kind of get lost in the common thought sometimes. But we certainly appreciate and know how valuable those guys are.”

Hill ready to hit
Hill and right-hander took batting practice on Saturday, preparing for their outings while playing under National League rules at Nationals Park on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hill, who struck out in his only plate appearance during the Rays’ opening series in Miami, is a career .112 hitter with 102 strikeouts in 249 plate appearances. But like most pitchers, he’ll enjoy the chance to hit and run the bases when he starts Tuesday’s series opener.

“It’s fun. You get to play the whole game when you get to hit, you get on base, you get to run the bases,” the 41-year-old lefty said. “I mean, you feel like a kid.”