In November, with MLB hurtling toward a lockout, the small-market and, some might say, star-averse Tampa Bay Rays made Wander Franco the richest player with less than a year of major league service in the sport’s history. The prodigy-turned-consensus top prospect-turned-instant-big league sensation signed an 11-year extension, with a club option for the 12th year, worth up to $223 million. He was still just 20 years old.
Somewhere amidst the fanfare and trips with his manager on private jets, Franco called Nelson Cruz. The veteran slugger, more than twice his age, had quickly become something of a father figure to Franco in his half season with the Rays, stressing the importance of routine to a phenom with preternatural athleticism.
The first thing Cruz said was congratulations, of course.
“But now your responsibility is bigger than what you did in the past,” he told Franco. “Now you have to think about how you're going to be involved with the community, because now you have to give back. You have to give back, not only to Tampa, but the country of the Dominican Republic also.”
Heady stuff for a kid still in braces, who had to celebrate his team’s postseason berth last season with sparkling grape juice.
All the talent in the world — and truly, Franco has that — could still benefit from the wisdom of experience. And Cruz, with his seven All-Star appearances and 17-year career, has some wise words for his countryman who will someday likely eclipse him.
“They have to understand the game goes pretty quick. You have to enjoy every moment that you have. Even to go to the World Series and play good, it’s not that easy,” he said, chuckling ruefully.
“I remember my first two years I went back to back to the World Series, and I thought, 'This is easy, I’ll be back every other year.' And that hasn’t been the case.”
Wander Franco, who makes everything look easy, watched his team come up just short in the World Series, frustrated to be left on the sidelines. Seventy-four big league games later, he stood on the field as the opposition celebrated around him in a stunning early elimination. He didn’t look away and in the days and weeks that followed, he replayed the final games over and over.
“Every day, every day,” Franco said recently via an interpreter.
That was all on the other side of $200 million that made him the face of a franchise that has the most wins in the American League over the past three seasons, but has never won a World Series. Over the next decade, Franco will learn that getting there isn’t as easy as it looks. But it’s hard to imagine that’ll stop him from doing it anyway.
‘He does not accept mediocrity’
Something you may not realize about Wander Franco is that he can be a little shy. Not about his baseball prowess — “How hard I play and the talent I was given,” he says about why he’s been able to adjust at each successive level — but around a new team or in a new clubhouse, he keeps to himself at first. There’s been ample opportunity for that in the five years since the Rays signed him.
Even before he was a proven big league shortstop, Franco was a figure of renown in the baseball world. ESPN called him the “can’t-miss kid” more than two years before he made the majors in a profile that detailed his rise from the unkempt field in Baní, Dominican Republic, to growing legend in Bowling Green, Kentucky. As an 18-year-old in Tampa’s Class-A affiliate, Franco slugged over .500 and talked of his Hall of Fame future.
But his manager there, Rei Ruiz said, “At the beginning of the season in 2019, it was a little tough, because, you know, he was the youngest player on my team.”
Before the game, Franco would arrive early, preferring to go through his lengthy conditioning drills alone. And later, he would linger in the manager’s office, listening, talking about plays, learning. Looking to add a practiced sense of precision to his innate ability. How to steal more bases and how a ball hit to the shortstop with a man on first and second is better thrown to third than trying to get the batter running to first.
“Those little details, little details,” Ruiz said.
Franco told ESPN he would make the majors the following year. But then a global pandemic disrupted everything, including a budding star’s meteoric rise. Instead, he went to the Rays’ alternate site, where teams sent potential big league replacements and top prospects when the minor league season was canceled. The talent there had to largely be major league ready, and Franco, who had never played above A ball, found himself facing the organization’s most promising and nearly polished arms.
“And so he was struggling more than he probably ever had,” said Brady Williams, who coached Franco at the alternate site in 2020 and managed him in Triple-A last year. “I saw a very driven guy every day trying to figure out, ‘Why, what's going on here? I have never, never struggled like this.’ And just constantly trying to be the best version of himself. That's what drives him, that's why he's so special, it’s that he does not accept mediocrity.”
When the Rays made the 2020 postseason at the end of that strange summer, made it all the way to the neutral site World Series in Arlington, Texas, Franco was brought into the bubble to be part of the taxi squad.
A frustrating stay in MLB’s playoff bubble
Ask Wander Franco nowadays, headliner at the Rays’ big league spring training camp, what it was like to watch the 2020 postseason essentially as an alternate before he’d even debuted, and he’ll tell you it was “a marvelous experience.”
“Something I was glad to be part of,” he’ll say. “And we went really far, so I was glad to see that with the team.”
Tell him you’ve heard that actually it had been difficult for him, that he didn’t like watching his team compete without him, though, and he’ll laugh a little.
“Of course, there's something like that,” he’ll admit. “Where you feel a little bit bothered thinking, ‘Hey, I think I'm ready. I think I'm good enough to be out there.’ Obviously it was their decision, but I felt like I was ready.”
The taxi squad worked out early, like 10 a.m. on game days in the playoffs. That way they could be off the field, sequestered within the bubble but away from the main team in case of an outbreak, before the regulars took the field. Then they would go up into the mostly empty stadium seats to watch the game from a suite.
“It was frustrating for both of them because of their inner drive,” Williams said of Franco and Vidal Bruján, another one of the Rays’ top prospects out of the Dominican Republic and a close friend. “They were like, ‘I want to go out there and play. I want to be on the team.’”
“Yeah, he told me a little bit about that,” Ruiz said. “He got to a point where sometimes he didn't want to be there because he was kind of frustrated that he couldn't be part of the team.”
Taxi squad life was glamorous compared to the minor leagues. Franco was treated like a big leaguer. The best food, no buses, and no packing your own equipment. He learned a lot, too, watching how the most accomplished players go about the game and their business. He was grateful, and excited.
But sometimes, after working out, he would go back to the hotel instead of the suite because couldn’t even bear to stay there, watching his team play and ultimately lose on the biggest stage.
“He wanted to be on the field so bad that it was a little hard for him to just be there,” Ruiz said. “He wants to be in a World Series so bad.”
Poise beyond his years
It’s a year later and the 2021 ALDS is about to end: bottom of the ninth, tie game. The Boston Red Sox, who clinched a wild-card spot on the final day of the season, had a 2-1 series lead over the AL-best Rays and a runner on second with one out. Yandy Díaz scooped a ball hit softly to third base, lobbed it while stumbling over himself, and didn’t get the runner at first when the throw was bobbled by Ji-Man Choi. Fenway roared. Men at first and third, one out.
Franco — playing in his 74th big league game, not at all nervous in spite of the stage and hostile territory — shouted over the din.
“Come on! Let’s go!” he urged a dejected Díaz.
With his team’s season 90 feet, one sac fly, and a few minutes away from ending in disappointment, that was what Rays manager Kevin Cash noticed. That was what he remembered five months later — the 20-year-old rookie picking up his teammate.
On the next batter, the Rays lost and returned to a clubhouse filled with both smiles and tears. Such is the torture inherent in all successful sports seasons: No matter how much you accomplish, it’ll all be erased in an instant; and no matter how close you get to the top, the next year will start with a clean slate at the bottom of the mountain.
For Franco, it ended a charmed rookie campaign that stretched from game-tying home run on the day he debuted through a 43-game on-base streak and capped off by hitting .368 with two home runs in the ALDS.
“What sticks out to me, it's not just his first postseason, he's 20. He was 20 years old,” Rays de facto captain Kevin Kiermaier said this spring. “I was in rookie ball, trying to figure out where my life was going, and he's 20 and on the biggest stage in the playoffs in the Major Leagues. I mean, he's just so poised.”
Makeup of a star
Franco's best tool may be that he’s a lightning-fast learner. His composure comes from a veteran’s patience and an ability to read pitchers. The coaches that have seen him up close praise his ability to adapt quickly.
“He's so smart at the plate,” Ruiz said. “When you talk to him, he will tell you every little detail about his at-bat.”
Adjusting to big league pitching, though, is just part of growing into the predetermined pillar of a franchise’s future. The Rays don’t know where they’ll play in six years; but, pending a trade, Franco will be there, switch-hitting and manning short. The team is best known for doing exactly what it needs — and no more — to be successful. They think success will come from building around him.
This spring Franco said he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a leader on the team, but how many 21-year-olds heading into their first full season have two lockers — the sign of respect in a clubhouse — to themselves?
“How many 21-year-olds have $200 million?” quips Cash. “If he needs a third one, we’ll get it for him.”
Franco has long had the MLB logo tattooed prominently on his neck, a striking commitment to the sport that now seems to reciprocate. Over the winter, he added “22 - 06 - 21” just above the iconic silhouette: the date of his first major league game.
“Ever since you’re a kid, the goal is to get into the big leagues,” he said recently — wrapping the universal childhood appeal of the sport and the specific opportunity it represents to the boys in the Dominican Republic into a single, simple explanation.
It’s an achievement worth savoring. But for as young as he is, Franco is all grown up now. It’s time to set some new goals.