Wander, increasingly comfortable and productive

BALTIMORE – After his second season as a professional, Dominican Wander Franco decided to get a tattoo. He was coming off rapidly rising through two minor league levels, clearly establishing himself as the best prospect in all of baseball with almost no experience beyond Class-A. Just over a year before his long-awaited major league debut, Franco got the MLB logo tattooed on the left side of his neck.

At 18 years of age, Franco knew exactly where he was going. Now, two months after debuting in the Big Top, the 20-year-old Rays shortstop says, “I feel like a major leaguer.”

“I feel pretty good. I feel very proud ”, declared Franco. “I’m here trying to fulfill my dream and I think I’m doing well.”

Franco has earned the right to feel that way. The Baní native is no longer a “prospect,” having graduated from the top spot on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list. He’s showing off the prowess of a veteran player, so much so that he has impressed his teammates and coaches with his energy and mature focus on the batter’s box.

Franco entered Friday on a 26-game streak on base, the longest active streak by a player 20 years of age or younger since MLB’s expansion era (since 1961). The Dominican is tied with Al Kaline for the fourth-longest string of on-base matches in American League history by a player under the age of 21. The only longest streaks belong to Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle (one of 36 games from 1951 to 1952, another of 28 in 1952) and Kaline (27, from 1954 to 1955).

Just over two months after his debut on June 22, Franco has 2.3 WAR (according to Baseball Reference), the sixth-best mark on a Rays team that holds the best record in the American League. The switch hitter has offensive numbers of .274 / .333 / .457 with a 124 OPS +, six home runs, 12 doubles and three triples. He has scored 38 runs and RBIs 29. He has managed to hit a 103.1 fastball from Cuban closer Aroldis Chapman and homered an 11-pitch shift on his first trip to Fenway Park, a sign that he does not shrink in situations of pressure.

Let’s not forget that he is barely 20 years old! As his partner Brett Phillips put it, with that trademark smile, “He’s still a youngster! He’s not even old enough to have a drink legally! “

“When I was 20 years old, I didn’t even see myself playing in the major leagues, much less the way he is doing it,” said experienced Rays BD / 1B, Dominican Nelson Cruz, who made his debut for the 25 years old in 2005. “The boy is so mature in basically everything he does, he has a lot of confidence and it seems that day after day he feels more comfortable. He has improved in every aspect of the game. Even in the clubhouse, the boy looks more confident. He has a world of talent and he is showing it every day with his glove, his arm or running the bases, showing his face when the team needs it most. It’s really fun to watch him play that way. “

But not everything has been rosy for the young Dominican. On June 24, in his third game with the Rays, Franco struck out three times for the first time in his professional career. Two weeks later, he struck out four times and went 5-0 against the Blue Jays. He has delighted with excellent plays at short stops, especially in recent weeks, but he has also made eight mistakes in his first 49 games. He reached the All-Star break with a .197 batting average and a .585 OPS.

But the way he has performed with the wood in 34 games after the All-Star break is the way the young man who claims he was “born to hit” always has: A .309 batting line /.367/.515 with 17 extra-base hits, 11 walks and just 19 strikeouts in 150 plate appearances. Franco says it took him time to “adjust to this level of play”, but he seems to have succeeded.

“To be honest, this is the Wander I envisioned watching him play,” said Rays left-hander Shane McClanahan, who was Franco’s teammates in the minors. “I mean, the boy plays baseball and he does it really well. So we all knew in some way what Wander was capable of. “

It’s already a great achievement that Franco has begun to pay off at the Major League level after debuting as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. But it is another thing to perform at such a level at his young age.

“I’m amazed at what he’s doing at 20 years old,” exclaimed Rays manager Kevin Cash. “What he’s doing is incredible.”

Added pitcher Chris Archer: “Even when I faced him in spring training, the guy read the posts well. He deliberately spoiled pitches, fouling several of them on purpose. I would say, ‘This boy is 12 years younger than me! You should not be doing this!'”.

“A lot of players come up to me and say, ‘Yes, at that age, I didn’t do what you do now,'” Franco concluded.