Projecting Franco's first 10 seasons
Top prospect's plate discipline, power draws big-time comps
Wander Franco's MLB debut Tuesday was everything a Rays fan could ask for. MLB’s No. 1 overall prospect climbed out of a white Rolls Royce, hit a game-tying homer (and looked made for that moment) and even added a web gem for good measure.
That electric first game spelled out all the reasons why scouts are so high on him, and why he only needed 214 Minor League games to convince Tampa Bay to call him up. But now the grind of the big league schedule sets in. How will Franco fare over the long term?
Sabermetrician Brian Cartwright, the chief data scientist and president of FlashStats, graciously tried to help us answer that question. Cartwright provided MLB.com with Franco’s projections over a 10-year span via his Oliver system, and spoiler alert: the future looks bright. Projections are inherently cautious, but Oliver took in the combination of Franco’s off-the-charts Minor League track record (.332/.398/.536, with 20 more walks than strikeouts) and his precious few years on Earth (only 20!) and saw great things ahead.
Still, to provide a wider range of the possibilities, MLB.com's Tom Tango also used the data to create both 90th percentile and 10th percentile stat lines for each of Franco’s next 10 seasons. That means three Franco projections (optimistic, standard and pessimistic) for every year from 2021-30, including his slash line, weighted on-base average (wOBA) -- a version of OBP that gives credit for extra bases -- home runs and wins above replacement (WAR). Each projection also comes with a historic comp based on wOBA and WAR at that particular age.
Before we begin, two short things to keep in mind:
• The projections start Franco with 350 plate appearances this year (given his late start), work him up to 550 in 2022, 600 in ‘23, then decrease by 5% in each subsequent year. That results in an average of about 500 per season. As with any player, health is a huge factor that could lead to Franco either underperforming or overperforming.
• Similar to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the last No. 1 overall prospect to debut in 2019, there are more questions about Franco’s defense than his offense. Franco began as a shortstop in the Minors, but he got some reps at second and third base at Triple-A before debuting in the Majors at third (fellow Rays No. 6 prospect Taylor Walls is viewed as a better defender at shortstop). The WAR totals here are projecting Franco as a third baseman, assuming it’s more likely he’ll be an average fielding third baseman than an average fielding shortstop.
Should Franco eventually have to move off the hot corner and play first or DH (like Guerrero did), that would negatively affect those WAR totals. You'll notice his comps start including first basemen as we progress later into his 20s.
Now, onto the good stuff:
2021 season (age 20)
Optimistic projection: .323/.387/.558 (.405 wOBA), 17 HR, 3.7 WAR
Comp: Fernando Tatis Jr. (2019)
Standard projection: .294/.352/.507 (.368 wOBA), 13 HR, 2.7 WAR
Comp: Carlos Correa (2015)
Pessimistic projection: .265/.317/.456 (.331 wOBA), 9 HR, 1.6 WAR
Comp: Hank Aaron (1954)
These three names give you an idea of the company Franco keeps throughout these projections. Tatis and Correa were special as soon as they arrived in the bigs. Each of them actually possesses a much bigger frame than Franco, but their supreme athleticism has allowed them to stay at shortstop.
2022 season (age 21)
Optimistic projection: .331/.396/.590 (.420 wOBA), 32 HR, 6.5 WAR
Comp: Albert Pujols (2001)
Standard projection: .301/.360/.536 (.382 wOBA), 25 HR, 4.8 WAR
Comp: Adrián Beltré (2000)
Pessimistic projection: .271/.324/.482 (.344 wOBA), 17 HR, 3.1 WAR
Comp: Ron Santo (1961)
Pujols didn’t arrive with anywhere near the hype that Franco did, but he famously walked more than he struck out in all but his rookie season across the first half of his career in St. Louis -- a potential guidepost for the elite plate discipline Franco showed in the Minors. Beltre was still a few years away from his 48-homer breakout with the Dodgers, but was maybe better than you remember as a 21-year-old in Los Angeles.
2023 season (age 22)
Optimistic projection: .337/.404/.616 (.432 OBA), 39 HR, 7.7 WAR
Comp: Eddie Mathews (1954)
Standard projection: .306/.367/.560 (.393 wOBA), 30 HR, 5.8 WAR
Comp: David Wright (2005)
Pessimistic projection: .275/.330/.504 (.354 wOBA), 21 HR, 3.9 WAR
Comp: Scott Rolen (1997)
Wright was on top of New York in 2005, breaking out that year with 27 homers, 42 doubles and 301 total bases. Rays fans would obviously be thrilled if Franco turned into that kind of star at the hot corner -- with the caveat that Franco avoids the unfortunate physical problems that ended Wright’s prime prematurely. Rays fans would also be thrilled if Franco duplicated another season that finished just behind Wright as a comp here: Evan Longoria’s sensational ‘08 rookie year.
2024 season (age 23)
Optimistic projection: .340/.409/.634 (.440 wOBA), 40 HR, 7.6 WAR
Comp: Frank Thomas (1991)
Standard projection: .309/.372/.576 (.400 wOBA), 30 HR, 5.8 WAR
Comp: Miguel Cabrera (2006)
Pessimistic projection: .278/.335/.518 (.360 wOBA), 21 HR, 4.0 WAR
Comp: Hank Blalock (2004)
Miggy was still manning the Marlins’ hot corner back in 2006 and, like Franco, he was a highly touted prospect who broke into the Majors at age 20 and impressed with his power and bat-to-ball skills. It also could prove a telling comp if Franco needs to move over to first base, like Cabrera did starting in his age-25 season (he did pretty well over there, though, winning two MVP Awards and a Triple Crown).
2025 season (age 24)
Optimistic projection: .339/.410/.642 (.443 wOBA), 40 HR, 7.4 WAR
Comp: Dick Allen (1966)
Standard projection: .308/.373/.584 (.403 wOBA), 31 HR, 5.6 WAR
Comp: José Ramírez (2017)
Pessimistic projection: .277/.336/.526 (.363 wOBA), 21 HR, 3.9 WAR
Comp: Eric Hinske (2002)
J-Ram announced himself as a force in 2017, pacing the Majors with 56 doubles along with 29 homers to finish third in that year’s AL MVP Award vote. Franco might not add the speed element that Ramírez did (he stole 17 bags in ‘17, then combined for 58 steals across ‘18-’19), but the inclusion of both Ramírez and the mighty Dick Allen hints at the kind of high-average, big-power offensive force we’re about to see.
2026 season (age 25)
Optimistic projection: .336/.408/.640 (.442 wOBA), 38 HR, 7.0 WAR
Comp: Jim Thome (1996)
Standard projection: .305/.371/.582 (.402 wOBA), 29 HR, 5.3 WAR
Comp: Nolan Arenado (2016)
Pessimistic projection: .275/.334/.524 (.362 wOBA), 20 HR, 3.7 WAR
Comp: Chipper Jones (1997)
Obviously we’re not saying that Franco’s defense will be in the same zip code as Arenado’s; it’s a little more that Arenado’s 41-homer 2016 campaign might have veered closer toward Franco’s age-25 projection, had he played at a less dinger-friendly stadium like Tropicana Field. The 1996 season marked Thome’s last season at third base before he moved over to first, and it was also the most valuable year of his Hall of Fame career.
2027 season (age 26)
Optimistic projection: .330/.405/.633 (.438 wOBA), 36 HR, 6.4 WAR
Comp: Joey Votto (2010)
Standard projection: .300/.368/.575 (.398 wOBA), 28 HR, 4.9 WAR
Comp: Don Mattingly (1987)
Pessimistic projection: .270/.331/.518 (.358 wOBA), 19 HR, 3.3 WAR
Comp: Robin Ventura (1994)
Votto and Mattingly show how Franco’s on-base skills could help him maintain his status as a big offensive weapon, even if he has to move across the diamond. A 26-year-old Votto captured the NL MVP Award in 2010, the first of seven different seasons that he paced the Senior Circuit in OBP. The difference between Mattingly and Franco’s projection is likely the glove; Mattingly won his third straight Gold Glove Award in 1987.
2028 season (age 27)
Optimistic projection: .325/.400/.623 (.432 wOBA), 34 HR, 5.9 WAR
Comp: Bobby Thomson (1951)
Standard projection: .295/.364/.566 (.393 wOBA), 26 HR, 4.5 WAR
Comp: Tino Martinez (1995)
Pessimistic projection: .266/.328/.509 (.354 wOBA), 18 HR, 3.0 WAR
Comp: Willie Stargell (1967)
Thomson, Martinez and Stargell all produced huge home runs in the biggest moments, so if nothing else, Rays fans are hoping Franco has some of that “clutch gene,” too. For what it’s worth, Franco’s teammate Walls has already marveled about how Franco always met the moment in the Minors.
2029 season (age 28)
Optimistic projection: .319/.396/.612 (.427 wOBA), 32 HR, 5.4 WAR
Comp: Willie McCovey (1966)
Standard projection: .290/.360/.556 (.388 wOBA), 25 HR, 4.1 WAR
Comp: Aramis Ramirez (2006)
Pessimistic projection: .261/.324/.500 (.349 wOBA), 17 HR, 2.7 WAR
Comp: Ryan Zimmerman (2013)
Aramis Ramirez was an offense-first third baseman, similar to what many envision for Franco, but he brought plenty of thump in the heart of those mid-2000s Cubs lineups. McCovey was almost a lock for 25-35 homers a season from his late 20s to his early 30s, a great consistency to which any young slugger should aspire.
2030 season (age 29)
Optimistic projection: .311/.391/.594 (.418 wOBA), 30 HR, 4.9 WAR
Comp: Gil Hodges (1953)
Standard projection: .283/.355/.540 (.380 wOBA), 23 HR, 3.6 WAR
Comp: Mike Lowell (2003)
Pessimistic projection: .255/.320/.486 (.342 wOBA), 16 HR, 2.3 WAR
Comp: Shea Hillenbrand (2005)
Hodges, one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame, authored his fifth of six consecutive seasons receiving NL MVP Award votes in 1953. The 2003-04 seasons represented Lowell’s prime as a hitter; apart from his resurgent ‘07 season with the Red Sox, he dipped closer to league-average production (albeit with solid batting averages) across the rest of his career.
10-year results (ages 20-29)
Optimistic projection: 62.4 WAR
Comp: Eddie Mathews
Standard projection: 46.9 WAR
Comp: Mike Schmidt
Pessimistic projection: 31.5 WAR
Comp: Ryan Zimmerman
Mathews and Zimmerman each debuted at age 20, and the divergent paths make sense. Franco’s optimistic trajectory puts him on the path of one of the greatest third basemen ever. His pessimistic trajectory still mirrors Zimmerman, a two-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone who had to transition to first base as injuries took hold toward the end of his 20s.
Schmidt and Mathews -- both 500-homer sluggers -- might seem somewhat preposterous comps, but the down-the-middle projection for Franco has him racking up 260 long balls by the time he starts his 30s -- actually ahead of Schmidt’s 235 after his age-29 campaign. Even as Franco’s value trails off slightly toward the end of his 20s, the homer projections remain robust.
For context, Mathews' 68.3 WAR from ages 20-29 is a record for third basemen and ranks 12th among modern position players, according to FanGraphs. Schmidt’s 50.0 WAR ranks fourth among primary third basemen, and is 35th overall.
Now, if Franco does move off third base and becomes an average first baseman, his standard 10-year projection drops to roughly 36 WAR. That’s still very good, but it drops him more on the trajectory of All-Star players like John Olerud and Freddie Freeman as opposed to no-doubt Hall of Famers.
With Franco, the hype is about the bat -- as he already showed Tuesday. If he can merely hold his own as an average fielder on the left side, as the scouting report says he can, we could be looking at some serious history upcoming for Tampa Bay’s new superstar.