Eventually, the Rays will need to make a $174 million call on Wander Franco

ST. PETERSBURG — Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Wander Franco. His talent is prodigious, his story is salacious and his future is a pinata the rest of us keep poking to see what it holds.

Everyone but the Rays, that is. They’ve remained purposefully mum and have scrubbed, figuratively if not literally, most evidence that their franchise player was once a star attraction at Tropicana Field.

You might interpret that to mean the team is ready to move on no matter what the criminal investigation in the Dominican Republic reveals, but that’s a dicey supposition. The silence of Rays officials is respectful of both the process and potential victims, but it’s also strategic for what’s ahead.

As much as Franco’s future is on the line, so is the Rays’. Not only is Franco the most heralded prospect they’ve had in their first quarter-century, his contract is critical to the team’s financial health. The Rays could be on the hook for as much as $174 million, which is a monstrous figure for a team in the shallow end of baseball’s revenue pool.

At some point, in the coming months, the Rays could be facing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t decision about Franco’s continued employment.

“One of the things you have to do as president of a team, and it’s a very difficult thing, is be the judge, jury, executioner and moral compass for things that players do,” said David Samson, the former president of the Marlins who hosts the “Nothing Personal” podcast. “Sometimes, the talent of the player is a bigger factor than it should be. Sometimes, the most skilled player can overcome the act. Sometimes, the least skilled player can’t overcome a lesser act. That’s the unspoken part of what team presidents do when they’re evaluating punishments and whether they can move forward with a player.

“Performance is a factor. We all say it’s not, but it is.”

Baseball has rarely, if ever, seen such a convergence of scandal, contract and team coffers. When Felipe Vazquez was sentenced to two to four years in prison in 2021 after a conviction for sex with a minor, he was in the final months of his contract and the Pirates were able to wash their hands of him. When Trevor Bauer’s 194 game suspension ended, his contract had only $22.5 million remaining, a small percentage of what the big-market Dodgers invest in payroll.

Franco, on the other hand, will average $19.3 million a year from 2024 to 2032. On Tampa Bay’s roster, that’s roughly 20% of a typical payroll for nine consecutive years.

Tampa Bay’s strategy for dealing with this will obviously depend on the outcome of separate investigations by Dominican authorities and MLB officials, but here is a breakdown of the team’s options in ascending order of probability.

The nuclear bomb

If Franco ends up in major trouble legally, and if the case’s details are egregious and get leaked, there is a possibility MLB could seek to ban him for life. To be clear, there is no recent precedent for this (although Vazquez has remained on an indefinite suspension while in prison). Even players convicted of domestic violence have found their way back onto the diamond after a year or less.

While no one in the Rays organization would root for this outcome, a lifetime ban would take the team off the hook for Franco’s contract.

Odds of it happening: Almost zero. Unless the scope of this case is much larger than anyone has suggested, it’s difficult to believe MLB would go to this extreme. Franco and the Players Association would also, presumably, put up a fight. While charges were never filed against Bauer, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s PR being more toxic than the former Dodger in 2022 and yet his suspension was only two years, later reduced to 1.2 seasons by an arbitrator.

Call the lawyers

Should Franco be convicted of a serious crime in the Dominican, the Rays might seek to have the balance of his contract voided under a clause in the standard MLB contract that requires a player to conform to the “standards of good citizenship.”

Baseball has not fared well going down this road in the past. Teams have tried to void, or remove the guarantees, of the contracts of LaMarr Hoyt, Denny Neagle and Francisco Rodriguez following arrests and always ended up paying hefty settlements. The Angels toyed with the idea of voiding Josh Hamilton’s deal after a drug relapse but eventually traded him to Texas while paying $73.5 million of his salary with the Rangers assuming $7 million and Hamilton agreeing to waive $3 million.

“There is a lack of precedent in MLB for teams terminating contracts — and that’s been apparent over a period of many decades, let alone many years,” said Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire. “Although any new situation could conceivably lead to a new result, the closest we’ve seen to contract termination is when a team and the player negotiate a buyout with the player receiving a large portion of what is owed.”

There is one caveat. Previous attempts to void contracts all came before baseball adopted its latest domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy. The Rays, who are noted out-the-box thinkers, might see a path forward that has never been attempted.

Odds of it happening: Still pretty slim. Baseball’s players’ union is the strongest in all of sports, and it will fight any effort to chip away at the guaranteed nature of contracts.

Eat the contract

That’s what the Dodgers did with the final year of Bauer’s contract at $22.5 million. The Rockies released Jose Reyes after a 51-game suspension for domestic violence in 2016 and were stuck paying him an additional $39 million. The Orioles owed Sidney Ponson $10.1 million when they released him after a string of arrests. Reyes went on to play for the Mets, Ponson bounced around for several more years and Bauer left for a lucrative deal in Japan.

At the same time, plenty of teams have kept troublesome players around because of the size of the contract/breadth of their talent. Marcel Ozuna was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife in 2021 and then arrested again on DUI charges in 2022, but he was at the beginning of a 4-year, $65 million deal. The Braves stuck with Ozuna through a 20-game domestic violence suspension and, two years later, he has 31 home runs.

Odds of it happening: Not real strong. No team has eaten a contract this large for disciplinary reasons. Throw in Tampa Bay’s smaller revenue streams and it seems highly unlikely that the Rays would agree to pay a player $174 million without anything in return. The only way this happens is if details in the case are so distasteful that the Rays can not, in good conscience, put him back on the field and there’s no hope of voiding the contract or trading him.

Find a trade partner

Former Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was suspended for 75 games in 2018 for violating the domestic violence policy and was dealt to the Astros before his punishment was even completed.

While the results of Franco’s investigation will have a bearing on his future outlook, it seems reasonable that other teams would have interest in rehabilitating the reputation of a 22-year-old shortstop with elite skills. The question is what teams might be willing to give up to get him. The Rays certainly would not get equal value in return for Franco in a trade, but they might consider it just to get out from under the contract.

Odds of it happening: There’s a decent chance the Rays would consider this option. There’s also the possibility Tampa Bay holds on to Franco and narrates their own second chance/PR story for a year or two while his salary is still manageable and then trades him in 2025 or 2026 when his value has risen again.

An offer of redemption

For the Rays, the best-case scenario is Franco is cleared of criminal charges and quietly resumes his career. This is a possibility but won’t likely be so cut-and-dried. MLB has demonstrated it will move forward with a suspension even if a criminal case disappears. Considering there have been at least three different allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors, you can probably assume MLB will look long and hard at a suspension.

Could the Rays keep Franco around after a months-long ban from MLB? Or even a guilty verdict? It would obviously depend on the particulars of the case, but players have returned from drug suspensions, DUI hit-and-runs, vehicular manslaughter and domestic violence cases. It might seem inconceivable today, but do not discount this eventuality.

A month ago, Franco was considered one of baseball’s greatest commodities. A young player at a premium position with elite talent and a contract that offered cost certainty for a decade. As Machiavellian as it sounds, that will have a bearing on his future.

Odds of it happening: History suggests this is not out of the realm of possibility. Barring abhorrent details or revelations we have not yet heard, it may even be the most likely scenario.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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