ATLANTA -- Not quite a month into his Major League career, top prospect Wander Franco is still checking off career firsts. On Friday night, he smacked a ball to the right-field corner at Truist Park and legged out his first big league triple. On Saturday night, he made his first start at second base.
Looking to get as many right-handed (or switch-hitting) bats in the lineup as possible against Braves lefty Max Fried, Rays manager Kevin Cash slotted Yandy Díaz at third base, Taylor Walls at shortstop and Franco at second for Saturday night's 9-0 loss to Atlanta. All of Franco’s previous action in the Majors had come at shortstop or third base, but second base is not exactly new to him.
Franco worked out at second base at the Rays' alternate training site last summer and earlier this year, and he played three games at second with Triple-A Durham this season. Plus, with the way the Rays shift their defense, he’s lined up on that side of the infield even when playing other positions.
“I don't know how much it's going to take place, but I certainly know how appreciative we are of his versatility,” Cash said. “And we'll continue to try to use that throughout the course of this season to give us our best chances and what we would consider our best lineups to win that night.”
Cash credited Triple-A manager Brady Williams and field coordinator Michael Johns for giving many of the Rays’ young players plenty of different looks over the last year, preparing them for the opportunities they’re now getting in the Majors. Vidal Bruján spent most of his Minor League career playing second base and some shortstop, for instance, but he entered this season as more of a super-utility type who manned six different positions in Durham before being called up.
Even Walls played some second and third base in Triple-A, although he has only lined up at shortstop in the Majors. For good reason, too: Despite making his debut only two months ago, and spending time on the 10-day injured list in late June, Walls entered Saturday ranked second among Major League shortstops (behind the Rangers’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa) with nine defensive runs saved.
“They’re all elite defenders. Taylor is setting the bar really high with what he has shown before getting to the big leagues, and now being in the big leagues, he's just backing it up,” Cash said. “But we'll still have pretty fluid conversations about what we think is best. You don't want to put too much on Wander's plate. I don't think that's fair for a 20-year-old, to ask him to do too much, but talking to him, just really appreciative that he's kind of good with whatever.
“I think Wander is very confident and knows what we view him as a player. And ultimately, he's come up as a shortstop. He's a shortstop. We're just fortunate right now we've got a lot of guys that can play shortstop and play third and play second at a very high level.”
That includes Walls, who made yet another impressive play in the first inning of the Rays’ 7-6, 10-inning win over the Braves on Friday night. Walls was perfectly positioned to turn a double play on a chopper hit by Ozzie Albies, and when pitcher Michael Wacha deflected the ball off course, Walls made a quick adjustment to get the out at second base.
Walls said Saturday afternoon he has been pleased overall with his work at shortstop in the Majors, saying he’s doing “everything that I expect myself to do.” But the rookie showed some of what makes him such a gifted defender when, after being asked to evaluate his defense, he first pointed out a few plays that he could have executed better.
“That's why he's so good. He sets the bar very, very high for himself,” Cash said. “He does not like to misplay a ball, and whatever motivates you to be special, do it. And that's what he's doing.”
Díaz offers support for Cuba
Díaz took the field Saturday night with “SOS Cuba” written on his cap, as fellow Cuban players Aroldis Chapman and Adolis García did at the All-Star Game, to draw attention to the current unrest and protests in Cuba related to food and medicine shortages amid an economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel bad,” Diaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I feel bad for my people in Cuba. It's an unfortunate incident, and I'm just hoping everything goes well. … There’s people dying. There’s adults, there’s kids dying out there. It’s very unfortunate. I’m hoping things will get better soon.”
Díaz said he hadn’t spoken with Chapman or García, who wrote two messages on his cap in Denver for the All-Star Game, but he said he knows other Cuban players feel the same way he does.
“I was born in Cuba. I'm always going to support it. I love the country,” Díaz said. “Everyone's there to support me, and I'm going to support everyone that's there as well. … We all support each other. Everyone in Cuba, I'm going to support. I'm here for them, anything they need. I love my country, and I'm just going to continue on supporting.”