Franco, Rays agree to blockbuster extension

November 27th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Shortly before signing for $3.825 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, a group of Rays officials set aside their scouting reports, sat back and simply watched the switch-hitting shortstop play. They walked away that day, Rays vice president Carlos Rodriguez said earlier this year, knowing they had seen “something potentially special” in Franco.

Sure enough, the 16-year-old prodigy became baseball’s consensus top prospect and arrived this year as a 20-year-old rookie phenom. Franco has lived up to the Rays’ expectations at every turn since then, and they believe he’ll continue to do so in their uniform for a long time.

The Rays on Saturday announced a blockbuster, record-breaking extension with Franco that will keep the young star under contract for more than a decade. The deal is for 11 years and $182 million guaranteed plus a club option. If Franco’s option is exercised and he reaches certain incentives, he can earn up to $223 million over the next 12 years.

The Rays and Franco will discuss the contract extension in a news conference at Tropicana Field on Monday at 10:30 a.m. ET.

Franco’s extension, which does not include a no-trade clause, is the largest contract in Rays history and the biggest ever for a player with less than one year of Major League service time.

“This is a great day for Wander and for the Rays, and is evidence of the mutual trust between Wander and our organization. So many of our areas had a hand in this -- our scouting, development, health and wellness and coaching personnel plus many others,” said Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. “We are committed to fielding competitive teams year in and year out, and we all expect that Wander’s presence and contributions will play a large part in maintaining our standard of excellence.”

Franco was baseball’s No. 1 prospect for two years and proved that the hype was justified in his debut season, slashing .288/.347/.463 with a historic 43-game on-base streak and 3.5 WAR in 2021. He finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting despite only playing 70 games, and by the time the Rays faced the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, Franco looked like the biggest threat in their lineup.

ESPN's Jeff Passan previously reported that Franco’s contract will include $3 million escalators for top-five MVP finishes beginning in 2028, and it’s possible he’ll enter that stratosphere much sooner. As manager Kevin Cash said after the Rays’ season ended, Franco might already be “the most impactful player on any team in baseball.”

Now, he’ll be a foundational player for a Tampa Bay club that’s coming off a 100-win season and a second straight AL East championship while still possessing arguably the game’s deepest Minor League system.

The Rays have set out to create a sustainable small-market contender, one that can contend in the AL East every season. By locking up Franco for the long haul, they have a franchise player to build around in pursuit of their first World Series championship.

“The pace at which Wander has developed speaks to his potential,” said president of baseball operations Erik Neander. “We have seen him do special things on the field, particularly for a player that is only 20 years old. He’s an exceptionally driven, budding superstar who can contribute to our success for a long time.”

The switch-hitting Franco, who will turn 21 on March 1, has shown the batting eye, plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills that portend success well into the future. He’s an above-average shortstop who can play anywhere in the infield, giving the resourceful and talent-rich Rays plenty of flexibility throughout the life of his contract.

The Rays have completed deals like this before -- Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Brandon Lowe signed long-term contracts early in their careers -- but never at such a high price.

Before this, no player with less than a year of service time had signed a deal larger than the eight-year, $100 million extension that Ronald Acuña Jr. signed with Atlanta in 2019. Previously, the largest contract in Tampa Bay history was the six-year, $100 million extension Longoria signed in late 2012 that brought the team’s total guaranteed commitment to $136.6 million over 10 years.

It's a significant agreement for the Rays, who are making an outlay unlike any other in franchise history, and for Franco, who is set to secure generational wealth before turning 21. But even if it’s a win for both sides, and especially Rays fans, as it seems to be, these deals still come with risk for all parties involved.

Franco may have passed up a chance to earn a bigger payday down the road, considering the mega-extensions signed this year by young shortstops Fernando Tatis Jr. (14 years, $340 million) and Francisco Lindor (10 years, $341 million). He has also pushed back his free agency and left himself open to being traded, as players who sign long-term extensions often are.

And the Rays, who operate with one of the Majors’ lowest payrolls, are offering a significant amount of money to a remarkably talented but still inexperienced player for more than a decade during an uncertain time for the franchise. The club is currently exploring a “Sister City” plan to split future seasons between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, and it will continue to ramp up those efforts this winter. The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, so considering the terms of Franco’s agreement, they are now committed to a ballplayer for longer than their ballpark.

This wasn’t an urgent matter in terms of Franco’s club control. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires on Wednesday, Franco wouldn’t have been arbitration-eligible until after the 2024 season and wouldn’t have reached free agency until after the ‘27 season. Even with the way the Rays constantly turn over their roster, a potential young superstar like Franco wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Now, Franco’s extension will cover his three pre-arbitration seasons, all three arb-eligible years and five free-agent seasons -- potentially six, if the Rays pick up his option. He will still have a chance to test the market in free agency in his early 30s, around the same age as many of this offseason’s top free agents.