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When a baseball fan asks about a new player’s potential for stardom ~ as in, How good is Wander Franco? ~ we tend to chuckle a bit. Because if you have to ask, the player is probably pretty darn good.
So, how good is Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays, anyway? The answer, to keep it brief, is very, very good. An indication is that his club extended Franco’s contract to very long-term, even though he just debuted in the major leagues last season. Plus, the Rays have never been known to spend big money on player contracts.
What’s the caliber of a player who gets a multi-year, 9-figure contract before even getting close to qualifying for free agency? Mike Trout level, basically.
The truth is, Franco is a rare talent, and his team as well as other Major League Baseball clubs are quite aware.
In November 2021, the Rays and Franco reached an agreement on a contract of up to 12 years and $223 million. He was 20 years old.
The 5’ 10”, 189-pound shortstop had just completed his first MLB season, not getting called up from the minor leagues until June so he was able to play in only 70 games. Still, he accumulated statistics well enough to place 4th in voting for American League Rookie of the Year. And then came the postseason.
Despite being so young, Franco hit very well in the Rays only playoff series, the Division Series matchup against division rival Boston Red Sox, who ultimately won 4 games to 1. Franco hit .368 (7 hits in 19 at bats), with 2 home runs, a hit in every game, and a spectacular 1.158 on base-plus-slugging percentage.
The performance justified his rather lengthy stint as the No. 1 ranked prospect in the major leagues. Not long after the Rays were eliminated from the playoffs, he became the youngest MLB player ever to ink a contract worth at least $100 million (passing the 8-year, $100 million contract extension of 2019 by Ronald Acuña Jr.).
In monetary terms, Franco’s contract was the biggest ever for players with less than a year of MLB service.
Born in March 2001 in the Dominican Republic, Franco ended up highly ranked as a top prospect in the international pool of 2017, and signed with the Rays in July that year. He debuted in the minors in 2018, at only 17 years of age, and claimed the Appalachian League Player of the Year award, hitting .374 with a .445 slugging percentage, 11 home runs, and 57 runs batted in in 245 plate appearances for the Princeton Rays.
By 2019 Franco was named the 4th best prospect in baseball, and for that season he hit .327, with a .398 slugging percentage, and .487 on-base percentage. He had 9 home runs, 53 RBIs and was named to the 2019 All-Star Futures Game.
By then his nickname became “El Patron,”: meaning boss, or skipper, in Spanish. By 2020 he was ranked the No. 1 prospect in baseball all around. After hitting .315 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs in 39 games in AAA ball, Franco was promoted to the Show.
Franco’s first-season numbers are impressive enough, especially for a player so young, and his postseason play was spectacular. Along the way and in a very short period he established himself with some rare achievements:
- Franco’s contract extension was the largest for any player with less than a year of major league service.
- He hit a 3-run home run against the division rival Boston Red Sox in his very first game in the majors, June 22, 2021.
- That first season, Franco became the 115th player to be in at least 70 games before turning 21 years old. Others include Hall of Famers like Jimmie Foxx, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, and Ken Griffey Jr. Active players on that list include superstars like Trout, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera, Acuna, and Fernando Tatis Jr.
- He joined Mantle as the only switch-hitter in the list of players under 21.
- Franco makes contact at an astonishing rate. The league average strikeout rate is 23.2%. Franco’s was 12%. Right behind him was a player who broke in similarly to Franco, Carlos Correa, who has a 17.4% strikeout rate. Trout’s is 20.9%, while Tatis Jr. has logged 29.6%, for comparison purposes.
- On that note, Franco made history with a 43-game on-base streak, which tied him with Frank Robindon (1956) for the longest such streak ever for players 20 years of age and younger.
All this in 1 season, where he missed the first 2-plus months of play.
His family has a history of Wander as first names, including brothers Wander Alexander and Wander Javier, who incidentally played in the minors for the San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros organizations.
Also named Wander, his father played minor league baseball in the 1990s. Wander Franco’s mother is Nancy Aybar, the sister of former major leaguers WIlly Aybar and Erick Aybar. Wando Franco’s full name is Wander Samuel Franco Sr. (his young son is Jr.), and he turns 21 on March 21, 2022.
“I think you could make the argument that he’s the most impactful player on any team in baseball,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said during the 2021 season.
Baseball insiders have formulas to try to predict future performances of major league players, and so far the projections indicate that Franco always will hit close to .300, with an OBP always at or above .500.
Note that these projections assume a performance right in the middle (“50th percentile”) of how well or poorly a player is predicted to perform. Imagine the results if he performs in the 75th percentile?
Basically the sky’s the limit with Wander Franco, and we very much look forward to watching him play baseball for many years to come.
Question: What if he gets hurt before 11 years expire and can no longer play?
Answer: He gets paid. Baseball contracts, unlike in other major sports, are guaranteed. Clubs usually get insurance to cover such occurrences.
Q.: Why is Franco’s contract extension “up to” 12 years and $223 million?
A.: Because the 12th year is a club option for $25 million. The contract without player or club options is actually for 11 years, for $182 million in total.