At long last, the moment has arrived. Tonight, the long-awaited Wander Franco debut will finally happen—and not a moment too soon for the Rays.
Road to the Show
As far back as 2017, Franco was one of baseball’s premier prospects. In a 2017 MLB.com list of international prospects, Franco ranked second, behind only Shohei Ohtani. Just a few months after turning sixteen, Franco signed with the Rays organization for nearly $4 million. The following year—at only 17 years of age—the young phenom debuted in professional ball in the Advanced Rookie-class Appalachian League for the Princeton Rays. He made an immediate impact, finishing the season with an otherworldly .351/.418/.587 slash line, walking more than he struck out and taking home the Appalachian League Player of the Year award.
Heading into the 2019 season, Franco was now one of the top prospects in all of baseball, ranking behind only current superstars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He split the season between Low-A and High-A, compiling nearly a full 500 PA between the two and continuing to improve his game. The switch-hitter slashed .327/.398/.487, keeping his strikeout rate at a minuscule 7% while raising his walk rate. Now 18 years old, it was difficult to find any flaws in his game.
Entering 2020, Franco was the #1 prospect in baseball. But the emergence of COVID and subsequent cancellation of the 2020 minor league season put a pause on any minor league development. While the Rays added Franco to their postseason roster, he did not make an appearance.
2021: The Year of Franco?
Which leads us to 2021, where Franco has been continuing to crush every level of baseball he’s seen, this time tearing through AAA as a member of the Durham Bulls. He’s slashed .315/.367/.586 through 177 PA, faltering a bit with his plate discipline (by which we mean he’s finally striking out more than he walks—still only striking out under 12% of the time) but showing off some newfound power with a higher ISO than ever before. It seems evident that there’s little left for the 20-year-old to develop in the minors. The Rays finally agreed (after the mid-June Super-Two deadline passed, coincidentally enough) and Sunday the news broke that the long-awaited Wander Franco debut was finally happening.
It comes at a crucial moment for the Rays, who are in the midst of a six-game losing streak (including a four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Mariners), a slump that has dropped them to second place in the AL East. The loss of pitching ace Tyler Glasnow for at least most of the season—if not more—is massive, exposing the thinness of their rotation. They’re desperate for a shock to the system to get things back on track—and tonight’s Wander Franco debut to kick off their home series against the Red Sox could be just the thing.
Wander Franco Debut: What to Watch For
Baseball has been collectively waiting for this moment for years now. Franco is a switch hitter with an 80-grade hit tool, impeccable plate discipline, and all-around solid speed and fielding. His hands are so quick, allowing him to generate incredible bat speed despite his slim figure. Just watch how easy he makes it look to smack this ball over the wall for a grand slam:
While he’s played shortstop for much of his professional career, he could easily end up at second or third. With the success of recent call-up, shortstop Taylor Walls—and all-around struggles of the Rays infield—Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times projects Franco to get the bulk of his starts at third.
Regardless of where he starts, the Rays didn’t call up the best prospect in baseball to have him ride the bench. They’ll find a way to get his bat into the lineup regardless of where he ends up in the field.
While Franco has been increasing his power (especially from the left side of the plate), it may take a bit more time for that to fully develop. The most important thing to watch in tonight’s Wander Franco debut is his contact and plate discipline, and whether he struggles to adjust to major league pitching. For someone projected to win multiple batting titles in his upcoming major league career, he may be able to start hitting right out of the gate. Whether he’s able to maintain his elite plate discipline is another big key to his major league success.
It will also be interesting to see how he performs defensively, especially given that he’s likely to see reps at multiple different infield positions over the course of the season. While his bat will keep him in the lineup regardless, it may take a bit of time for the Rays to settle on a permanent fielding position for Franco, but his athletic versatility should provide manager Kevin Cash with quite a bit of flexibility.
But more than anything, enjoy watching a 20-year-old get his first taste of the Show. And get used to it—he’s going to be here awhile.
Come join the discussion made by the fans at the Overtime Heroics forums! A place for all sports fans!
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images