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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 50
June 22, 2021
In a few hours, the consensus top prospect in baseball, Rays shortstop Wander Franco, will make his MLB debut. Franco, who just turned 20 in March, has torn up the minors to the tune of a .332/.398/.536 line while being far younger than the competition at every level. This season, Franco is hitting .315/.367/.586 at Triple-A Durham. That’s meaningful because Franco had yet to play above A ball due to the loss of the 2020 minor-league season. He had just 700-odd pro plate appearances coming into 2021. Franco showed over the last six weeks that he could handle better competition and that the lost year hadn’t stunted his development.
Franco is, at 20, a complete hitter. In Triple-A, the switch-hitter had a 21/12 K/BB that would be impressive for anyone, much less a hitter his age. His strikeout rate of 12% is also remarkable for this era. When he puts the bat on the ball, it’s with a controlled, level swing that generates line drives. Listed at 5'10", 185, he nevertheless generates a lot of power, as he showed on this spring training blast from the left side. He has the speed of a young man, with 27 career steals (against 21 times caught, yuck), 20 career triples, and the mobility to play shortstop. His legs will probably not be a huge part of his game past his early twenties, however.
I’m curious to see how the Rays deploy Franco. They began the season with an established shortstop in Willy Adames, a plus defensive shortstop nominally ahead of Franco in Taylor Walls, and two other shortstop prospects in Vidal Brujan and Xavier Edwards. The Rays gave Franco some minor-league reps at both second and third in recent weeks, perhaps preparing him to share an infield with Walls in the majors. (Since his call-up, Walls has hit .237/.356/.355 in 26 games with excellent defensive numbers.) Generally, the Rays value defense over offense, so I would be surprised to see Walls play, when he plays, anywhere but shortstop.
Joey Wendle hasn’t done anything to lose his job at third (.292/.350/.491), but he can play second base. It’s Brandon Lowe who has been a disappointment (.202/.304/.399). Lowe stands to lose the most in the Franco promotion. Yet even Lowe is a league-average hitter this season; he could get some time in left field. Franco may get some DH at-bats, pushing Austin Meadows into the outfield, squeezing out Kevin Kiermaier and his .280 OBP. The Rays have built a lot of positional flexibility into their roster; they can use that to get Franco in the lineup most days.
Even after trading Adames, the Rays have four MLB-caliber middle infielders, and Brujan coming up quickly. What a ridiculous organization this is.
The timing of Franco's promotion has garnered some notice, coming with about 100 days left in the season. That's likely not enough for him to eventually gain the “Super Two” status that would allow him to go to arbitration after 2023, rather than 2024. I don’t think that’s much of a factor, myself, mostly because I think that specific aspect of MLB's compensation structure will go away in the new CBA. It’s a kludge no one likes that dates to the 1980s, and pushing arbitration back to three years of service (or even higher as a tradeoff for earlier free agency) is one of the few chips the MLBPA has left.
No, I think Franco is up now at about the point he was always coming up, after he showed he could handle the upper levels of the minors. Had the minor-league season started on time, parallel to the MLB season, I suspect Franco would have been up in May. If there’s an external factor here, it’s less Super Two and more Miserable Six, with the Rays losing that many contests in a row. When you get swept by the Mariners, you take a good long look in the mirror. The Rays had a three-game lead in the AL East a week ago, and now they’re looking up at the Red Sox again. They’re hitting .222/.300/.361 in June; only the Rangers have been worse. Over the six-game losing streak they’ve hit .198/.247/.343 with just 20 runs scored. Kiermaier and Brett Phillips are killing the team, which is why I think that’s where Franco will get his playing time, and even Meadows (.208/.260/.375 in June) is at some risk.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Franco will be an upgrade. Jarred Kelenic got this treatment in the Newsletter six weeks ago and is already back at Triple-A. Gavin Lux and Jo Adell were recent top-five prospects who have yet to launch in the majors. Even Mike Trout hit .163 and was sent back down before becoming Mike Trout.
Franco, though, is a level above most of those guys. There’s a difference of degree between being a top prospect and being the top prospect. Franco compares to Fernando Tatis Jr., to Kris Bryant, to Bryce Harper, a fully-formed player who steps into the majors ready to thrive.
My favorite comp, though, goes back a bit further, and wasn’t in fact a top-ten prospect at the time. In 2003, 18 years ago almost to the day, the other Florida team called up a 20-year-old infielder who had also turned pro as a shortstop, and who was tearing things up in the minors. It might be a lot to ask Wander Franco to hit a walkoff extra-inning homer for his first major-league hit, but it’s in the footsteps of Miguel Cabrera that I think he will follow. Cabrera hit .268/.345/.468 as a rookie, splitting time between third base and left field. The Marlins, under .500 when he arrived, went 54-31 in the 85 games Cabrera started, snagged the NL wild-card berth, and went on to their second championship in seven seasons.
Wander Franco is a more accomplished hitter, a more polished hitter, and a more complete player than Cabrera was at that point. He is going to step into the Rays’ lineup and be a big part of why this team wins another AL East crown.