He is younger than Wikipedia, yet Tampa Bay’s rookie switch hitter has shown he belongs on the big stage.
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In 20-year-old Wander Franco’s heavily anticipated major league debut on Tuesday, he homered and doubled. In his second game Wednesday, he might have been even more impressive.
In the first inning, batting third for the Rays, Franco spat on three fastballs barely outside the zone and worked a two-out walk. The next batter, Austin Meadows, homered, to give Tampa Bay a lead it would not relinquish. In the second, Franco sprinted down the line to beat out a grounder to second. In the top of the sixth, he stayed back on a ball that took a difficult hop, and he got the out at first. In the bottom of the frame, he held off on another close pitch, worked another walk, then went first-to-third on a single.
Even the most touted prospects often arrive in the majors to discover that the game seems to play out at hyperspeed. Veterans like to joke that adding another deck to the stands can make young players lose their bearings. Franco, who has a tattoo of the MLB logo on his neck and wears No. 5 to honor Albert Pujols, does not seem overwhelmed. Franco has seen 41 major league pitches. He has swung and missed twice. The kid is already playing like a veteran.
“He’s kind of beyond his years,” manager Kevin Cash marveled after the Rays beat the Red Sox 8–2 at Tropicana Field. “To think that he’s 20 years old and he’s doing that. It’s one thing to be so athletically advanced and talented in that aspect, but to do the little things … just shows you know how good he is and how good he’s gonna be.”
In 2017, the Rays signed the switch-hitting 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for $3.825 million. It was the highest figure deal for any international amateur that year. He had the bloodlines: He is the nephew of big leaguers Erick and Willy Aybar. And he had the ability: He soon produced a 1.004 OPS in rookie ball, an .896 OPS in Class A and an .872 OPS in High A. At each of those levels he was at least three years younger than the average player. He was the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball heading into 2020 and again into this year.
Franco is the first major leaguer born in 2001 (he is younger than Wikipedia). He was likely ready for the majors in spring training, but the Rays held him back long enough to gain an extra year of service time. He was surely ready for the majors in April, but they held him down long enough to keep him from gaining Super Two status, which would have let him hit arbitration four times instead of three, which for a player of Franco’s ability probably means tens of millions of dollars. (The top 22% of second-year players in terms of service time get that extra year of arbitration. The cutoff changes based on when players are called up, but the average from 2010 through ’19 is two years and 130 days. If Franco stays up, he will finish his second full season with two years and 104 days.)
But now he is here, and he has been astonishing. After the pandemic erased the 2020 minor league season, he hit .315 and slugged .586 in his 39-game Triple A debut, where he was nearly seven years younger than the average player. The Rays lost six straight before his call-up and batted him second against the Red Sox in an attempt to make something happen. They lost again that night, but his presence has brought energy to the team and to the home crowd. Tampa Bay has raced to produce FRANCO 5 shirseys. Franco drew ovations on Tuesday when he took the field for pregame work, when he was announced in the lineup, when he strode to the plate for his first at bat and especially when he ripped that homer to left field to score three runs and tie the game.
“This building behind him, I’ve never seen anything like that in this building,” said Boston manager Alex Cora after the game.
If Wednesday night was any indication, they will have many more opportunities to cheer.
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