Should Wander Franco be worried Trevor Bauer remains exiled in Mexico?

ST. PETERSBURG — The most talented starting pitcher in Mexico currently sports a 1.50 ERA.

He also leads the league in wins, strikeouts and notoriety. In the recent past, he was an All-Star in Cleveland, a Cy Young Award winner in Cincinnati and one of the highest-paid pitchers in the world while in Los Angeles. And yet no Major League Baseball team has offered Trevor Bauer even a league-minimum contract in 2024.

Depending on your point of view, this is either shameful or just.

And if you are Wander Franco, it should be frightening.

Franco’s journey through the Dominican Republic judicial system is expected to have more clarity in the coming weeks. The Rays shortstop has been accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl and providing money to her mother along the way.

Those legal problems are Franco’s main concern today, but they are hardly his only worry. He is also being investigated by MLB officials and could be facing a lengthy suspension, and the possible cancellation of a contract that has more than $170 million remaining on it.

Maybe that seemed farfetched 10 months ago, but Bauer’s stint in baseball purgatory should be eye-opening for Franco and the Rays. Not to mention, former 20-game winner Julio Urias, who was once expected to flirt with a $200 million deal in free agency, has also gone unsigned after pleading no contest to misdemeanor domestic battery charges.

So are we in a new era of culpability in baseball, and did it arrive just in time to nail Franco?

Considering Franco’s uncertain status, the question is worth pondering. And perhaps it’s wise to examine similarities and differences in the cases of Franco and the two former Dodgers.

Contract status

Bauer and Urias were both nearing the end of their contracts in Los Angeles when they ran into legal problems, which has made it convenient for MLB teams to ignore their availability in free agency. The Franco situation is more complicated and, potentially, costly for the Rays.

Bauer was midway through the first season of a three-year, $102 million deal when he was accused of assaulting a woman during consensual sex. He was placed on administrative leave (which meant he was paid) and later suspended for two seasons (eventually reduced to 194 games through arbitration) and then released by Los Angeles shortly after his suspension ended. The Dodgers were not required to pay him during the suspension, so Bauer had only $22.5 million remaining on his deal, which the team ate.

Urias was less than a month away from free agency when he was accused of domestic violence, so the Dodgers were only on the hook for roughly $2 million while he was on the administrative list at the end of 2023.

Franco, on the other hand, is still in the early stages of the richest deal in Rays history. And while his contract may be in jeopardy if he is convicted, it could end up saving his career in the long run.

The Rays have been paying Franco’s $2 million salary this season, although they could have disputed that obligation since he never reported for spring training. That may be the first sign that the Rays still consider Franco part of the team’s future. His salary jumps to $8 million next season and eventually averages around $25 million per season from 2027 to 2032.

Considering the enormity of that obligation, there is no way the low-revenue Rays can afford to eat that contract.

So if Franco is convicted of a felony in the Dominican Republic, the Rays may seek to void (or possibly renegotiate) his contract, although there is not a lot of precedent for that in MLB history. If Franco avoids serious charges, the Rays will likely welcome him back, although it would require a serious PR makeover.

MLB weighs in

The Bauer case does not bode well for Franco when it comes to the commissioner’s office.

His original accuser was denied a restraining order when a judge found her claims “materially misleading,” and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office eventually decided not to file charges due to a lack of evidence. Other women, however, had made similar accusations, and MLB conducted its own nine-month investigation. The league eventually hit Bauer with the longest suspension ever levied under MLB’s domestic violence policy.

While the Bauer case sets a precedent for an MLB punishment despite charges being dropped, Franco may benefit if witnesses and authorities in the Dominican do not cooperate with baseball’s investigators.

NBA player Josh Giddey was recently accused of an inappropriate relationship with a minor, but no charges were filed and ESPN reported this week that the league declined to suspend him due to a lack of evidence.

A question of value

While Bauer could undoubtedly step into any rotation in MLB today, there is at least a suspicion that his cumulative baggage now outweighs his considerable talent. Even before his suspension, Bauer had a reputation for being brash and combative. The alleged details vividly revealed by his accuser merely fed into that narrative.

(A different accuser in Arizona who filed a lawsuit against Bauer has recently been charged with criminal fraud charges. Bauer and his original accuser resolved dueling civil cases without any money changing hands.)

Now, at age 33, he has missed half of 2022, spent 2023 in Japan and is currently pitching for the Diablos Rojos in Mexico. St. Louis baseball operations president John Mozeliak seemed to give voice to weighing those concerns during a recent radio interview about the team’s pitching needs.

“I don’t want to make it look like I’m so desperate to win that I would do something that would fly in the face of our moral compass,” he said.

Urias, 27, was also previously suspended under MLB’s domestic violence policy. This second incident will likely lead to an even stronger punishment, and is clearly weighing on the minds of executives who have not been aggressive in signing him to a post-suspension deal.

Franco, 23, has some maturity issues and was not particularly popular in the Rays clubhouse but was never labeled as a bad person or a malcontent. And since there have been scant details about his alleged deeds, other than social media posts and captured texts, he has avoided a lot of the public backlash Bauer faced.

Franco is also a generational talent who has not yet reached his peak as a ballplayer.

Might that make it easier to rehabilitate his reputation? Barring further revelations, the Rays and Franco have 170 million reasons to try.

Bottom line

Franco remains in a world of trouble. At the very least, he’s lost a year of his career, his reputation has taken a hit and his MLB future is debatable.

Watching Bauer pitch in other countries while posting behind-the-scenes footage on a YouTube channel has to be a sobering reminder of what’s at stake as prosecutors continue to ponder whether a conviction is likely or even plausible in Franco’s case.

We are approaching the three-year anniversary of Bauer’s last MLB appearance. He has never faced a jury, never landed in handcuffs and is still tens of millions of dollars poorer while living in baseball exile.

Franco is a decade younger than Bauer and his ceiling remains higher. He may also have the grudging support of his team, if only for practical and economic reasons.

Will that make a difference in whether we ever see him again in a Rays uniform?

More to the point, should it?

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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