Wander's origin story: 'Born to hit'

June 21st, 2021

Wander Franco sat behind a group of tables pushed together at the Boga Boga Restaurant in Santo Domingo and handled the makeshift dais and press conference with ease.

He answered questions like a pro about his long-term goals and why he would make a good big leaguer one day. Then he posed for photos and signed a few autographs, as is sometimes customary at news conferences in the Dominican Republic.

The reporters in attendance hung on Franco’s every word, and everyone there knew they were witnessing something extraordinary as he officially joined Rudy Santin's MVP Sports Academy in Santo Domingo. Odd, sure, but extraordinary, nonetheless. This kind of event was unprecedented.

Franco had just turned 13.

Today, Franco is baseball's top prospect and on the cusp of his Major League debut. But you have to turn back the clock several years to find out where he comes from, what made him special and when everybody knew he had a chance to be the next great one.

“I feel like I was born to hit,” Franco said in Spanish. “It’s something God gave me. Since I was a little boy, I’ve always been able to make good contact and hit the ball hard.”

Like many kids in the D.R., Franco began playing the game at an early age. He was 10 when he joined a family friend named Oritel "Chiqui" Peguero and began training for a career in professional baseball. "Chiqui" ran a small program but had relationships with well-known trainers at much bigger programs. One of those trainers was Rudy Santin, a former Major League scout and executive who had spent a combined 27 years with the Yankees, Rays and Giants before becoming a player trainer in 2011.

In an interview with MLB.com before his death last summer, Santin recounted how he found Franco.

"I was on a trip to Bani to look at a pitcher to add to my program, and I asked Chiqui if he had anyone else to see. He told me he had a 10-year-old that was a natural," Santin said in 2018, "I'm like, 'OK, sure.' But as soon as the kid got to the second ground ball, I'm like, 'Wow, this guy is special.' He looked like a miniature big leaguer. I wanted to work with Wander right then, but he was too young, so I left him a pair of spikes and a glove and told them to call me in a few years."

Chiqui sent Franco to Santin's MVP Sports Academy in Santo Domingo two years later and the rest is history. The longtime scout held that event at a local restaurant to announce the news.

Under Santin’s guidance, Franco visited MLB team academies in the D.R., starred in showcases and worked out on the tryout circuit that's common for top international prospects. The Rays first laid eyes on him back in 2014 while scouting outfielder Jesús Sánchez, who was also in Santin's program.

“One day, we’re sitting there watching Jesus Sanchez, and (Rudy Santin) kind of says, ‘Hey, you’re going to really like a surprise that I have for you guys,’” Carlos Rodriguez, the club’s vice president of player development and international scouting, recently said. “It wasn’t an official showcase. It was more like, ‘This is what I’m trying to polish up.’ And it was Wander. There was a lot to like, obviously. Up-the-middle prospect. Always had those really electric, quick hands. Loose, whippy swing. Always seemed to enjoy being on the field.”

Watching a young Franco perform in those early days was a sight to behold. He’s known as a force at the plate now, but back then, international scouts compared Franco’s hands and footwork on defense to Omar Vizquel’s. He was just so smooth. At the plate, he could hit the ball with authority from both sides. His baseball instincts and baseball IQ were also advanced beyond his years. Franco was the nephew of former big leaguers Erick and Willy Aybar, the neighbor of Cleveland third baseman José Ramírez and it showed. Even at 15, Franco walked, talked and more importantly, played like a prospect who was going to be in the big leagues one day.

He did have a few critics. Some international scouts expressed concern about Franco’s future projection because of his size. Was he strong enough? Was he going to grow? There were also questions about his muscular lower half. Others wondered if he had the ability to stick at shortstop. However, there was no denying Franco’s prowess on defense and the way he could always barrel up the baseball every time he stepped in the batter’s box. He could run, too. The makeup was also off of the charts. It’s no surprise Franco was considered the top international prospect when he signed for $3,825,000 with the Rays on July 2, 2017. The Yankees, Blue Jays and Brewers were also in the mix to sign him.

“I think we had pretty good consensus that he was going to be a really good offensive player, but a lot of the chatter at the time was about, like, ‘Where’s he going to end up playing?’ Is he going to be a shortstop? Is he going to play second, third?” Rodriguez said. “Toward the end of our time evaluating him prior to him signing, we just kind of sat back and watched him play. Just watched him play, observed his intellect on the field, his baseball IQ, the energy he brings. And walked away feeling pretty good about having something potentially special, and he hasn’t disappointed.”

That’s an understatement. Franco’s meteoric rise though the Minor Leagues is one of the best stories in baseball and the next chapter is about to begin. Back in 2017, he made his deal official at the Rays’ complex in the D.R. with very little fanfare. His next press conference will be an international event.

Franco will be ready for the big stage. He always has been.