'A big leaguer'? Wander is much, much more

Rays continue to be astonished by performance, maturity of their 20-year-old phenom

August 26th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- After his second season as a professional baseball player, got a tattoo. He had just ripped through two levels of the Minors, clearly establishing himself as the top prospect in baseball without so much as a game of experience above Class A. More than a year before his highly anticipated Major League debut, Franco had the MLB logo inked on the left side of his neck.

Franco knew then, at 18 years old, where he was headed. Now, two months into his Major League career, the Rays’ 20-year-old shortstop says, “I feel like a big leaguer.”

“I feel very good. I feel very proud,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro before batting practice Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park. “I'm just over here trying to accomplish my dream, and I think I'm doing a good job of it.”

Franco has earned the right to feel that way. He’s no longer a prospect, having graduated from the No. 1 spot on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list. He’s playing like someone well beyond his age and experience, impressing his coaches and teammates with his energetic attitude and mature approach at the plate.

Franco will enter Friday’s series opener against the Orioles at Camden Yards with a 26-game on-base streak, the longest active streak in the Majors and the longest such streak by a player 20 or younger in MLB’s expansion era (since 1961). He’s tied with Al Kaline for the fourth-longest on-base streak in American League history by a player younger than 21 years old; the only longer streaks belong to Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle (one of 36 games from 1951-52, another of 28 in ‘52) and Kaline (27, from 1954-55).

A little more than two months after his June 22 debut, Franco has totaled 2.3 wins above replacement (per Baseball Reference), sixth most on a Rays team that owns the AL’s best record. The switch-hitter is batting .274/.333/.457 with a 124 OPS+, six homers, 12 doubles and three triples. He has scored 38 runs and driven in 29. He has handled a 103.1 mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman and homered to end an 11-pitch at-bat in his first trip to Fenway Park, hardly shying away from big moments.

Did you forget he’s 20 years old? As teammate Brett Phillips marveled, smiling, “He’s still a kid! He can’t even have a beer yet!”

“When I was 20, I couldn't imagine myself playing in the big leagues and doing it the way he's doing it,” said Rays DH Nelson Cruz, who debuted at 25 years old in 2005. “He's so mature in basically what he's doing out there, and he's really confident, and it seems like day by day, he looks more comfortable. He looks better in every aspect of the game. Even in the clubhouse, he seems more confident. He’s just a talented guy playing baseball, and he's showing it every day either with his glove or his arm or running the bases, in late situations being clutch. It's just fun to see him play like that.”

There have been some tough moments along the way, on-field adversity that Franco likely hadn’t experienced as he breezed through the low Minors, skipped Double-A and tore up Triple-A. On June 24, his third game with the Rays, he struck out three times for the first time in his professional career. Two weeks later, he struck out four times and went 0-for-5 against the Blue Jays. He has made some excellent plays at shortstop, especially over the past few weeks, but he has also committed eight errors in his first 47 games. He entered the All-Star break with a .197 average and a .585 OPS.

But the way he has hit in 34 games since the All-Star break is pretty much the way the guy who said he was born to hit always has: a .309/.367/.515 slash line with 17 extra-base hits, 11 walks and only 19 strikeouts in 150 plate appearances. Franco said it took time to “adapt to this game,” but he seems to have done it.

“This is exactly what I envisioned Wander doing, to tell you the exact truth,” said Rays left-hander Shane McClanahan, who played with Franco in the Minors. “I mean, the guy just plays baseball and does it really well. … So I think we all kind of knew Wander was capable of this.”

It’s enough of an accomplishment that Franco is starting to live up to the overwhelming hype that comes with being a highly touted prospect. It’s another thing to perform at a high level at such a young age.

“I’m amazed at really everything he’s doing at 20 years old,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, noting that Franco is about halfway between the age of players drafted out of high school and those drafted as college juniors. “It’s unbelievable what he is doing.”

Take it from McClanahan, who’s impressing in his own right as a 24-year-old rookie: “It's pretty cool to think about that. He's already in the big leagues and has these records when I would have been in my sophomore year of college.”

Or from Chris Archer, who raved about Franco’s “mature” approach at the plate: “Even when I faced him in Spring [Training], he's laying off pitches. He's deliberately spoiling, fouling off pitches on purpose. I'm like, ‘This guy's 12 years younger than me! He's not supposed to be doing this!’ I was winning my state championship in Little League, and he wasn't even born yet!”

Or from Phillips, who also credited the Rays’ culture for helping young players like Franco and 21-year-old Luis Patiño feel comfortable right away: “He’s just been extraordinary to play with and be around, just knowing that when I was 20 years old, there’s no chance I could have played at this level. It’s super special, and it’s a testament to the coaching staff and the guys around him, too, that they can let him be himself.”

Or from Franco himself: “A lot of guys, they mess around and they say, 'Yeah, at that age, I wasn't doing what you're doing.'”