Last July the Tampa Bay Rays made a splash in International Free Agent market by locking up the number one overall prospect, according to Baseball America, in Wander Franco. Franco is the nephew of Erick Aybar and former Ray Willy Aybar. Franco received a $3.85MM signing bonus.
As Rays fans know all too well even at the top end of the IFA market the results have extremely high variance. In 2014 the Rays signed the number one overall prospect, Adrian Rondon. Rondon hasn’t performed stateside, and has been out performed by Jesus Sanchez, Ronaldo Hernandez, Vidal Brujan, and Resly Linares among players from the same signing class. Apparently projecting sixteen year olds is more art than science.
But dare we hope that Franco could be as good as promised? He destroyed the competition in extended spring training. He proved enough to the Rays that he should be skipped over the Gulf Coast League at the Port Charlotte training complex and go straight to the Princeton Rays affiliate in the Appalachian League.
Wander Franco turned 17 in March, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up video game numbers in a league that most players are several years older than him. He’s hit .386/.426/.683 and is putting up a 180 wRC+ through his first 108 plate appearances. He’s hit four doubles, four triples, and six homers.
Franco put a stamp on the first half of his season last Saturday night going hitting for the cycle with a second homer for good measure. He picked up six RBI as part of the five-for-six night.
Results aren’t the number one thing to look for in minor leaguers especially in the lower minors, but it’s always nice when the scouting reports line up with great results.
What Franco has likely done has punched his ticket to starting the year next year with the Bowling Green Hot Rods (A full season) and place him among the absolute youngest in full season ball after turning 18 in Mach 2019.
Jake Bauers and Willy Adames were 18 in the Midwest League when they were with the San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers farm systems respectively. They were both also about half a year older turning 19 just after the seasons ended in September/October.
Wander Franco’s 17 year old season compared to other recent phenoms.
The only players you can really compare Franco to are International Free Agents from countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and other caribbean islands that aren’t Puerto Rico.
Franco is currently the same age as a high school junior. He wouldn’t be eligible for the MLB draft until next summer.
Recent IFA Phenom 17 Year Old Seasons
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||App||276||12.0%||12.7%||12||3||8||15||5||0.271||0.359||0.449||122|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||AZL||188||5.3%||23.4%||13||1||4||14||2||0.273||0.312||0.426||108|
We’re working with a really small sample size from Franco. It’s all we have to go on, but even as he cools off this summer his numbers are likely to compare very favorably with this group of prospects.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Toronto Blue Jays) was the only other prospect that skipped complex ball and played his full 17 year old season in the Appalachian League.
Juan Soto (Washington Nationals) was promoted to the New York-Pennsylvania League to play his final six games of the season after spending the bulk of his season in the Gulf Coast League.
Ronald Acuna (Atlanta Braves) spent his first 157 plate appearances in the Gulf Coast League and finished up his season with 80 plate appearances in the Appalachian League.
The contact (7.4% strikeout rate) and power (.297 ISO) are the two things that stick out in favor of Franco to this point of the season. Vlad Jr. is the only one with more homers (8) than Franco (6) despite all the batters receiving well more than twice the plate appearances.
Acuna and Soto are in the majors at 20 and 19 respectively. Acuna entered the season as the #1 overall prospect and Soto was ranked #57 by Baseball America.
In this morning’s updated Baseball America’s Top 100 Wander Franco made one of the biggest jumps to #26 overall. He’s extremely young and not all prospect development is linear.
Guerrero Jr. was ranked number one overall and Tatis Jr. was ranked number two overall in the latest update.
Jesus Sanchez (#44) was shown to compare to the current trajectory of Rays IFA signing. Sanchez played his age 17 year old season in the Dominican Summer League and didn’t come stateside until 18 years old to play in the Gulf Coast League for most of the year.
Sanchez is 20 years old and has played the full season in Port Charlotte. If Franco starts next year in Bowling Green he will be two years ahead of Sanchez at the same age.
It’s possible that even if the Rays conservatively promote Franco that he can be in the major leauges in his age 20 season (2021) or at the latest 21 (2022). If he continues to destroy the minor leagues he could force the issue and accelerate the timeline.
The Wander Franco hype train is just pulling out of the station, but there’s still plenty of room. We shouldn’t expect smooth sailing as we aim for the moon, but Franco has the potential to be that one teenage super star. The Rays minor league system has a lot of talent, but Wander Franco just looks different.