There is a full host of games around Major League Baseball on Tuesday, but fans will have one eye on Tampa Bay. The second-place Rays (43-30) host the first-place Boston Red Sox (43-29) in an American League East tilt, but that is not the only attraction. Baseball’s No. 1 overall prospect, Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco, is expected to make his major league debut.
“It’s a pretty special moment for somebody in this room…”
The moment Wander & his teammates were told he was going to The Show by our manager Brady Williams.
Congrats, Wander! pic.twitter.com/mN1fQ74Obw
— Durham Bulls (@DurhamBulls) June 21, 2021
The infielder from the Dominican Republic comes from a baseball family, following in the footsteps of his father who played in Triple-A and two elder brothers that each made it to the majors. All four of the men are named Wander, but the youngest arrives with far more pomp and circumstance than his predecessors. Franco is also the nephew of the Aybar brothers (Erick and Willy) who also played in the MLB. He grew up idolizing Albert Pujols (as so many Dominican ballplayers do) and has always worn number five for that reason.
The Ascension Begins
Franco began with a bang, and the kid nicknamed “El Patrón” for his otherworldly skill set has yet to let his foot off the gas. Less than two weeks into his first professional season in the Appalachian League at age 17, he hit for the cycle. That season, he was named Player of the Year after batting .374 with 11 homers and 57 RBI. It was clear right away he had no business being in the low end of the minor leagues.
Fast-forward to the offseason between 2019 and 2020. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. having already been promoted to the big leagues as baseball’s top prospect, the spot was vacated for Franco. At this point he had already generated immense buzz and anticipation. However, the excitement about Guerrero’s second full major league season in 2020 was palpable and fans were content to wait on the next big prospect to follow. Everyone expected Franco to make the leap in 2020 and join Guerrero in the majors last season, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the minors, complicated the majors, and delayed his arrival.
Good things come to those who wait. Today, Guerrero is putting on a clinic in the majors and is an early front-runner for AL MVP honors. Franco, the next “can’t miss” prospect baseball has seen is set to join him. He adds himself a burgeoning scene of young superstars blazing their own trail of excitement under the lights in a stuffy league that is all too concerned with closed-door meetings and checking caps for sticky stuff.
A Path to Success
Franco is obviously in good company as an elite-level player with the tools to succeed at the next level. It is nearly impossible to project how he will adapt to the majors as soon as he arrives today, or what he may accomplish through the remainder of the season. The days of prospects needing time to adjust are not obsolete; some need more time than others. There have, however, been more than a few examples recently of batters stepping right into their new role seamlessly.
Acuna debuted at the end of April in 2018, the youngest player in the majors at 20 years old. He got his first base hit in his debut and followed it up the next day with a homer during a 3-4 performance. He finished the season batting .293 with 26 home runs and 64 RBI en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year in 111 games. Acuna won the award with ease and in his sophomore season he bashed 41 balls out of the park. This season, he already has 19.
The man Acuna beat out for the ROY that year is also the man that took the title of youngest player at that time in the majors. Soto was called up at 19 years old (and 207 days) on May 20 of the same season. His first at bat was a strikeout as a pinch hitter, but when he saw his first pitch as a starter the next day, he went opposite field for a three-run homer. He finished 2018 with a .292/.406/.517 triple-slash, smacking 22 homers and driving in 70.
2018 was a good year. The two-way player swept the nation and also won Rookie of the Year honors with ease, besting Yankee infielders Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres. The 24-year-old wasted no time, socking three home runs with five runs batted in and 12 total bases in his first three consecutive games. In his mound debut he went six innings and got a win. In his second, he took a perfect game into the seventh inning, striking out 12. As a batter, he closed the season with a .925 OPS, knocking 22 homers and 61 RBI. As a pitcher he was 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 63 Ks in 51.2 innings.
The arrival of the “Polar Bear” to begin the season at first base for the Mets came without much fanfare outside of New York. In the minors, Alonso showed improvement from year to year, but nothing near as meteoric as others on this list. However, his 2018 season is what earned him his shot. In 2018 between two minor league levels, Alonso hit 36 bombs and drove in a whopping 119 runs.
In 2019 for the Mets, Alonso had 11 extra-base hits in his first 10 games. He set several rookie home run benchmarks and beat Guerrero in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Alonso won NL Rookie of the Year after going .260/.358/.583 with a new rookie record (passing Aaron Judge) 53 HRs while adding 120 RBIs.
Alvarez was not brought up to the Houston Astros until June 9, 2019, shortly before his 22nd birthday. He made up for lost time in a hurry. Alvarez blasted a two-run homer in his first game, hit four in his first five games, and seven in his first 12. Even with his late arrival to The Show, the slugger won AL Rookie of the Year honors with a startling 1.067 OPS, sending 27 balls into orbit and racking up 78 RBIs in just 87 games.
Fernando Tatis, Jr
Perhaps the most appropriate comparison to Franco is that of the man patrolling the same position in San Diego. Tatis also arrived with a ton of fanfare and fans pleading for his call to the majors. Although he has missed time often due to inury (the first of which cost him a shooter’s chance at Alonso’s ROY), the similarities between he and Franco are striking.
On Opening Day at 20 years old, Tatis began his career going two-for-three. Days later, he smacked his first career home run and went off like a shot after that. Although his rookie season was cut short by a back injury with nearly two months left in the season, he slashed an incredible .317/.379/.590 (.969) to go with 22 homers and 53 RBI while often hitting at the top of the lineup. He also added 16 stolen bases. He has done nothing to slow down now: In 2021 through 55 games, Tatis has uncorked 22 dingers, adding 50 RBIs and 13 SBs while slugging a ridiculous .675 (leads majors) with a 1.039 OPS (leads NL).
Predicting how Franco’s affects the league (or even his division) is next to impossible. The Rays are in the throes of a six-game losing streak. Batting a woeful .229 on the season, they reside near the cellar of the standings in OPS, while striking out the second-most times. They suffer from a severe lack of star power and have no real “face of the franchise”. Enter Franco, and he is not the only reinforcement coming, either. A group of solid prospects awaits, and the team appears to be willing to call them to duty when necessary.
In 39 games in Triple-A, Franco is sitting on a cool .315/.367/.586 slash with 24 XBH (seven homers) and 35 RBI. For his minor league career, the future star has batted .332 with 27 home runs, 27 stolen bases and 95 bases on balls to just 75 strikeouts. It is the minor leagues, sure, but there is no denying why he is one of the most anticipated prospects in years.
Watching Wander play baseball with the energy he brought to the ballpark every day was special.
Here’s a preview of what’s headed your way, Tampa Bay. pic.twitter.com/07mzyPm1fp
— Durham Bulls (@DurhamBulls) June 21, 2021
It is tough to heap too many expectations on a young man who is 20 years, 113 days old. However, the players on this list along with Guerrero, Judge, Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout and so many others have proven that it is indeed possible to show up and take the league by storm. For a kid who bought a Lamborghini when he signed his first contract, this might be the wildest ride yet. It is going to be fun to watch.
Red Sox at Rays is the MLB.TV Free Game of the Day at 7:10 p.m. EDT
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