Five ground balls into the drill, Wander Franco was out of breath.
That’s how Tampa Bay Rays field coordinator Michael Johns remembers Major League Baseball top prospect’s return to the diamond at the team’s alternate training site last year.
“He had his hands on his knees and I just started laughing,” Johns told USA TODAY Sports on Monday.
Johns turned the prized prospect over to the strength and conditioning staff. For more than a week, Franco hardly touched a baseball or a bat. He came back to the field a different type of beast — the first one at the field, the last one to leave.
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And he was 19 years old.
A year later, Franco, who turned 20 in March, is expected to make his major league debut against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.
“I’m just really proud for how he handled everything,” Johns said.
The bigger the stage, the better he is
The Wander Franco hype started well before his 16th birthday. Players from outside the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico (Franco is a native of the Dominican Republic) are eligible to sign with MLB teams at 16 or as long as they turn 16 prior to Sept. 1 of the signing period.
Tampa Bay signed the shortstop for $3.825 million on July 2, 2017, the earliest a team could ink Franco. By the next season, he was the MVP of the rookie-level Appalachian League as a 17-year-old after batting .351 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI.
He kept up the torrid pace in 2019, hitting .327/.398/.487 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) between the Class A and Class A Advanced levels. But minor league season was canceled in 2020, forcing Franco and other minor leaguers to alternate training sites where they could spend time with big league players, or those closer to the show.
That experience paved the way for Franco’s debut Tuesday, Rays director of minor league operations Jeff McLerran said.
“Based on what he’s able to do on the field, you often forget that he still has a lot of maturing left to do,” McLerran told USA TODAY Sports. “A lot of his peers are still working their way through rookie ball, and here’s a guy going against the best of the best outside the big leagues.”
In 39 games and 177 plate appearances this season for Class AAA Durham,, Franco has hit seven homers, while posting a .954 on-base plus slugging percentage. But the off-field progression is what spurred Rays executives to determine Franco was prepared for the rigors of the bigs.
“I think it’s in that off-field side is where we’ve seen the most growth over the last couple of months, how he handles his business and how he is with his teammates,” McLerran said. “We’ve grown a lot more comfortable with how he’s able to handle the big leagues from that standpoint that made now the right time.”
At each level of his progression, Franco had been the most talented player on the field, McLerran said. But that changed at the alternate training site, where Johns had him facing hard-throwing prospects Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz. When he came back from his conditioning stint, Johns said, “he was just a different dude.”
For maximum results, Johns would involve a stopwatch or pit him against another player in a drill.
All you have to do is tell Franco he’s going against (someone else), and it’s just on,” Johns said. “It could be 125 degrees. He’s going to go in there, and he’s going to try and win.”
“That’s when Wander shine. He needs to compete. He loves the limelight. The bigger the stage, the better he is.”
Wander Franco scouting report
Franco’s bat-to-ball skills are elite, and his approach is equally polished.
Per McLerran: “He has as good an approach as anyone in terms of the way he manages the strike zone, knows what pitches are the best pitches for him to do damage on, and he has incredible bat-to-ball skills. He’s one of the best we’ve seen at just being able to make good, hard, solid contact.”
As Johns put it: “He was born to hit.”
The organizational thinking at one point, Johns said, was that he’d have to be moved to another part of the infield. That all changed last year.
“He made all of us a believer,” Johns said. “He just showed a lot more quickness a lot more body control, get the ball out of his glove in a hurry and fire to first base.”
Franco possesses a “tremendous (internal) clock,” Johns added, with an innate ability to anticipate hops. McLerran said the Rays project him as an above-average shortstop throughout his career.
Franco isn’t afraid to steal bases — he needs to work on his success rate (27 steals in 48 attempts in the minors) — but Johns is confident that will come with time. His feel for the game allows him to take extra bases when necessary.
“He knows what’s going on around him. He knows what the (other) players around him are doing,” Johns said. “He knows how he’s supposed to be pitched, how he’s going to be pitched. He’s a very, very smart individual and he’s got a very high baseball IQ.”
Even with his competitive nature, both Johns and McLerran referred to Franco’s personality as “infectious” and mentioned his smile. He likes to push himself beyond accolades.
“He compares himself to the best of the best and wants to push himself to be even better,” McLerran said.
“Once people watch him enough on the world stage,” Johns said, “everyone’s going to be pulling for this guy.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.