ST. PETERSBURG – From the moment Wander Franco arrived at his first major league camps, several questions arose. Will the best prospect in the sport be ready for the majors? Will it be able to live up to expectations?
Those questions changed in the weeks after the 20-year-old Dominican’s unforgettable debut on June 22 at Tropicana Field and continued to come through as his impressive debut season progressed. Can you keep up? Will he be considered for the Rookie of the Year award? How will you respond on the playoff stage? How do you do all this at that age?
After the Rays’ season came to a close, at the hands of the Red Sox in the American League Division Series, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash made us consider another question: Is Franco now one of the most valuable of all baseball?
“I think we can have arguments to say that he is the most impactful player in baseball,” Cash said at Tropicana Field. “Certainly in our case we were a good team, but it improved after his arrival. It gave the lineup depth. Defense improved. He worked really hard on his glove and raised the defensive level of the team. “
“He is a player who changes the game. It will be fun to watch for a long time. “
Take into account what the Baní native has achieved before his 21st birthday. He hit .288 / .347 / .463 with seven homers, 18 doubles and five triples with just 37 strikeouts in 308 times at bat, in 79 regular-season games. According to Baseball-Reference, he was the team’s fifth most valuable player in Victories Over Replacement (WAR), despite being promoted in late June and missing more than a week in September with a hamstring injury.
Franco had the fourth best bWAR (Baseball-Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement) of any rookie in the American and National Leagues. The list was led by his teammate and Cuban Randy Arozarena (4.2), Jonathan India of the Reds (3.9) and also Cuban José Adolis García of the Rangers (3.8). Franco follows them with 3.5, with the difference that the first three played more than double the Dominican’s games – Arozarena had 141 games to accumulate his WAR, India 150 and Garcia 149.
Franco solidified his future superstar status in his first postseason experience, going 19-7 with two doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and five runs scored in the Rays’ four games in the ALDS against the Red Sox. The Rays are not surprised to have seen the 20-year-old shine on the highest stage.
“Wander has impressed me more and more with the passing of the days, since he got here,” Cash confessed, before Game 4, when he spliced a two-run home run at Fenway Park. “He behaves like a seven, eight year veteran. But he’s not seven, eight months in the big leagues. “
“We are lucky to have it. It feels good when he stands at the plate every night. “
Given his age and level of experience, Franco seemed to make history with every shift he took. His skills were clear throughout his 43-game run with at least one base reached, matching that of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in 1956, for the longest streak in American and National Leagues history for a player 20 years or younger.
Wander left other baseball immortals on his way to equal the mark: Ken Griffey Jr., Al Kaline, Mel Ott, Arky Vaughan and Mickey Mantle. Plus, he also made playoff history.
He became the fifth player aged 20 or younger to hit home runs in straight postseason games, joining Rafael Devers in 2017, Miguel Cabrera of Venezuela in 2003, Andruw Jones of Curaçao in 1996 and Mantle in 1952. The pair of cannon shots before the age of 21 also put him in elite company – matched with Mantle and Devers, behind Cabrera (four), Juan Soto (three) and Jones (three). Cabrera is the only one with a longest run of home runs with a maximum of 20 years.
Despite their sudden elimination, the Rays know they have a bright future ahead of them. They are littered with talented players under control, led by Franco, Arozarena and starters Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Drew Rasmussen.
“We thought it would be a special group. And they showed it to us, ”Cash confessed. “I think we will have a chance to be really good – I am confident that we will be very good from now on. All thanks to very talented players, in the majors or on the horizon ”.
So another question arises regarding Franco, heading into his first full season at the age of 21.
Can you imagine what it is capable of?