Wander Franco turned 18 years old Friday. He was born on March 1, 2001.
Despite this, Franco is already ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, and according to experts, he could be be No. 1 by this time next year.
So, how did he get to this point?
In Sept. 2016, a 15-year-old Franco was making waves as he quickly became the top player in the next international signing period. Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com wrote at the time that Franco was likely already the top name to watch.
Remember this name: Wander Samuel Franco. Some believe the Dominican teen is the top player in int'l class of 2017 pic.twitter.com/QxqhwrV09X— Jesse Sanchez (@JesseSanchezMLB) September 7, 2016
Franco comes from a huge baseball family, sharing his name with two other brothers, both of whom are in the San Francisco Giants organization. His father also played professionally. He is the nephew of two former major league infielders, Erick Aybar and Willy Aybar.
As Franco grew up, he became close friends with Cleveland infielder Jose Ramirez, despite Franco being seven and Ramirez being 15 at the time they met (Baseball America $), and started emulating his game after him.
At just 10 years old, Franco caught the attention of former scout Rudy Santin, who ran the MVP Sports Academy. When Franco became old enough, he joined the academy and Santin even held a press conference announcing Franco’s induction into the school. As Franco became a teenager, he began to hone his skills and turn himself into quite the player. Showcase after showcase, it was his name that generated the most buzz among scouts, including members of the Rays, who took notice while they were scouting Jesus Sanchez in 2014. During the showcase in Sept. 2016, one scout gave Franco about the best compliment a scout could give:
“God reached down and touched those hands,” one American League team’s international director said. “Guys with hands like that usually end up in the big leagues. If somebody tells you that they signed Vizquel or Ozzie because they thought they were going to hit in the big leagues, well, that’s just revisionist history.”
During the offseason, Franco would named the second-best prospect on the international market, trailing only Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese superstar who would go on to win American League Rookie of the Year in 2018.
As the signing period drew near, the Tampa Bay Rays became the favorites to land the highly coveted prospect.
With each passing day, reports just became more glowing about the 16 year old infielder, as one scout said that Franco would be able to compete in Class A immeditaely.
“You could put him in Low-A right now and he would be fine,” said a third scout. “He has one of the fastest bats I’ve scouted here. It’s quick with strong forearms and in games he slashes the gaps for doubles and triples.”
On July 2 2017, the international signing period officially started, and the Rays signed Franco with a $3.825 million bonus, the largest amount given to a player in the class.
Thoughts on No. 1 international prospect Wander Franco (Rays) and why top international prospects are so valuable. pic.twitter.com/pObWGx7lsj— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) July 2, 2017
Whenever discussing Franco, his amazing ability at the plate is usually what leads the discussion. His advanced offensive skills led Baseball America to place him on its top-100 prospects that offseason before he had even played a professional inning.
A switch-hitter with excellent bat speed from both sides, Franco has a short, pure stroke and keeps the barrel in the zone for an extended time. He shows good strike-zone discipline and advanced pitch recognition, and uses the entire field while making consistent contact.
With a player as advanced as Franco, the Rays made an aggressive move, starting him in the Appalachian League with the Princeton Rays. Princeton is a small step above the Gulf Coast League, where players his age typically start their professional careers when they arrive in the United States. It was huge acknowledgement of Franco’s abilities to start him off at that level.
At just 17 years old, Franco was among the youngest players in professional baseball, playing at an age where most kids are just starting their senior year in high school.
Franco dealt with this by pummeling the league and putting up astonishing numbers, including a 25-game hitting streak. On one particular night during that streak, Franco had a video-game-like experience as he hit for the cycle and went deep a second time for good measure.
Franco just kept on hitting and never really missing. Any time he swung, he usually made contact, and when he made contact, it was usually really hard. Over the course of the season, Franco would hit .351/.418/.587 with 11 home runs in 273 plate appearances. Those numbers are incredible in their own right, but to add just a bit more polish to them, Franco only struck out 19 times all season, meaning just 7 percent of his plate appearances as a 17 year old resulted in a strikeout.
He was named the Appalachian League Player of the Year.
By now, the baseball world had become enamored with Franco.
He was moving up lists at nearly an unfathomable pace. By the time Baseball America released its midseason update, Franco had moved up from No. 96 all the way to No. 19 and he was now the No. 2 prospect in one of the best systems in baseball.
Multiple publications started dubbing him ‘the next teenage superstar’ (ESPN $), comparing him to the likes of Washington’s Juan Soto, saying his bat is so good that it could propel him to the majors within two years.
When I had the chance to see Franco a couple of times over the course of the season, I came away extremely impressed. A lively presence on the field and in the dugout, he made the plays in the infield and did not disappoint at the plate.
If a pitch is anywhere near the strike zone, Franco can punish it. If he swings, he’ll make contact. If the ball somehow eludes his bat, the pitcher should forever identify themselves as a guy who got a pitch past Franco. One of Franco’s weaknesses is that he is so good at making contact, he’ll often end an at-bat before having the chance to punish a mistake, so that will be something to look for improvement on.
Franco has great power, especially to the opposite field, as a I witnessed him barreling up a pitch at his shoulders and sending it the wall in left-center field.
From the right side of the plate, Franco doesn’t possess as much power or at least hasn’t showcased it, and that may be the weakest part of his game as of now.
With the 2019 season inching closer, Franco’s fame just keeps growing, as he is now the top prospect in the Rays’ system:
The Rays aggressively pushed him, and he responded by being the best hitter in the Appalachian League as a 17-year-old. Some scouts believed he could have jumped straight to high Class A with few issues. Franco is already one of the best hitters in the minors, even if he’s half a decade younger than many other top prospects. He can hit just about any fastball with a short swing from either side of the plate and excellent bat speed.
Recently, Rays director of minor league operations Mitch Lukevics discussed Franco with Dewayne Staats during a broadcast. In the segment, Lukevics revealed that the Rays’ budding star prospect would start out the season with the Bowling Green Hot Rods in Class A.