Sports | June 22, 2021 8:48 am

Get to Know Wander Franco, The All-World Prospect Who Just Got His First Big League Call-Up

The 20-year-old shortstop is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball

Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays
Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays during a Grapefruit League game.
Michael Reaves/Getty

Over the weekend, the Tampa Bay Rays announced that 20-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball, will be making his major league debut on Tuesday.

But before we get to Franco — whose call-up, outside of MLB ongoing foreign-substance scandal, is the top topic in all of baseball this week — we’d be remiss if we didn’t call attention to a highlight that happened over the weekend for the New York Yankees in what has been a disappointing season thus far.

On Sunday against the Athletics, the Yankee defense stopped closer Aroldis Chapman from blowing his third save of the season and helped preserve a 2-1 win over Oakland by converting a game-ending triple play that stranded the go-ahead run in the ninth inning. Started by third baseman Gio Urshela at the hot corner, the triple play went to second baseman DJ LeMahieu followed by first baseman Chris Gittens.

The first game-ending triple play since 2009, the triple killing was the third of the season for New York, tying a record the Yanks now share with 11 other teams. “You’re around long enough, you see everything,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “I’ve never seen a game end like that before.”

From that unlikely ending, which boosted the Yanks to 38-33 and dropped the A’s to 44-29, we head to the start of the aforementioned Franco’s career in the majors with Tampa.

Set to debut Tuesday versus the Red Sox as the Rays seek to end a six-game losing streak, Franco is a natural shortstop who can also play second and third base. Given the highest signing bonus of any international amateur during the 2017-18 signing period, when the Rays inked him for $3,825,000 at age 16, Franco has been tearing the cover off the baseball at Triple-A. This was the scene when the youngster found out he was being promoted to The Show.

A native of the Dominican Republic who dropped out of school at age 12 to train to become a professional ballplayer, Franco won Rookie Appalachian League MVP honors as a 17-year-old in his pro debut before rapidly moving up through Tampa’s minor league system.

A switch-hitter, Franco “creates electric bat speed with his exceptionally strong hands and wrists” and “knows how to manipulate his swing to put the barrel to the ball and make consistent hard contact to all fields,” per his official MLB prospect profile. Though he isn’t an exceptional power hitter, Franco did have seven home runs and 35 RBI in 39 games at Triple-A Durham in 2021. Still improving at the plate, Franco currently has more pop as a left-handed hitter, having hit all but two of his 20 career home runs from that side of the dish.

Nicknamed “El Patrón” (The Boss), Franco was an overall .332 hitter with 145 RBIs in his three minor league seasons and went 5-for-17 with a long home run in seven spring training games for Tampa this year.

“Franco carries himself with the self-assuredness limited to a subset of the small subset that comprises the world’s best players,” ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote in a 2019 profile of Franco. “Greatness can blossom from fear; Franco’s comes from certitude. He knows how good he is, how rare it is for a 17-year-old to walk into rookie ball, hit .351, slug 11 home runs in 61 games and walk 50 percent more than he strikes out, as he did last season. He knows, too, that the last player to ambush the Midwest League as an 18-year-old with his combination of power and patience was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and before that Carlos Correa, and before that Mike Trout.”

Just two years older than Franco, 22-year-old Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays is second in the American League this season with a .337 batting average and leads the AL in home runs (23), RBI (59), total bases (169) and WAR (3.8). Though he’s currently out with a calf injury, Trout is an eight-time MLB All-Star and three-time AL MVP (2014, 2016 and 2019).

In addition to being a prospect who is apparently on par with Trout and Guerrero Jr., Franco possesses the same sort of upside as young stars like Juan Soto of the Nationals, Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Braves and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres, according to ESPN MLB insider Kiley McDaniel.

“I don’t know for sure exactly how good Franco will be in the short, medium or long-term, but I can tell you that both anecdotally and empirically, he’s in a good spot,” McDaniel wrote on Monday. “The players that tend to hit the ground running in the big leagues have an advanced hit tool, strong contact rate performances in the minors, and a good approach, along with some speed and defense as margin for error in case they start slowly at the plate. If you’ve been paying attention, that’s basically the Franco scouting report.”

On a 20-80 point scale, that scouting report grades Franco with a minimum of 60 on all five of his tools ( hitting for average, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing), with 50 being average for the major leagues and 55 being above average, per McDaniel.

“It’s all lined up, right? Any reasonable list of the top prospects in baseball has Franco in the top position,” Kevin Goldstein of FanGraphs wrote in mid-February. “I not only wouldn’t respect any list without Franco at No. 1, but I’d also be disappointed in anyone who even saw it as a debate. He’s a generational talent and he’s nearly big league ready.”

Approximately four months later, we’re about to find out.