Wander Franco and the Tampa Bay Rays are Ready for Change

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – The first thing you notice, near Wander Franco, is the tattoo of the Major League Baseball logo on the left side of his neck. Franco already got it on June 22, when he made his debut for the Tampa Bay Rays, as he was pre-certified for stardom. In the winter, he puts the date on top of the emblem.

Think of it as a useful reminder – thousands of times over the next 11 seasons, the Rays hope – of Franco’s self -confidence and how he supported it the first night. He fouled the first two pitches he saw, then drew a walk. He later drilled a three-run homer and doubled. He took 10 swings, connected nine times, and didn’t strike.

At an age where many hitters are willing to sacrifice contact for power, Franco, who turns 21 this month, is taking a more logical approach.

“Well, if you want to do a home run, you have to get in touch,” he said, through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, at the Rays ’spring training clubhouse last week. “So I think, I know if I get in touch, good things will happen.”

The Rays have been counting on a lot of good things over the years. In November, they signed Franco to an 11 -year, $ 182 million contract (with club options for 2033), the richest deal in major league history for a player without a years of service. It’s a shocking commitment for a franchise that doesn’t already have an annual salary of $ 80 million as it enters its 25th season.

“But he showed faith in us, too,” General Manager Peter Bendix said. “He showed faith that we were here to support him, that we put him in a position to succeed, that we would build good teams around him. These are the two sides that have shown faith in each other over a long period of time. .

Franco was 7, at home in the Dominican Republic, when his uncle, Willy Aybar, played for Tampa Bay in the 2008 World Series. Family television lost power during one of the games, Franco remembers laughing, so he couldn’t watch the entire series, winning Philadelphia in five games. But he got the idea: The Rays are very good, and will always stay that way.

Since the 2008 season, the Rays have won more games than the Boston Red Sox and appeared in more World Series than the Yankees. They signed Franco for $ 3.825 million in 2017, when he was 16, and formed a strong bond as a basis for a long-term deal.

“There’s a lot of communication between everyone, the progress from the players in the minor leagues is incredible and the way they run their business is great,” Franco said. “They always give me a chance and support me.”

The Rays started tracking Franco when he was 14 years old. Carlos Rodriguez, a vice president of baseball operations who is director of international scouting, was attracted to the space, like Franco’s whip cradle from both sides of the plate. But when Rodriguez picked up Franco’s bat, he felt it was too heavy for a young man, a man’s bat-33 or 34 ounces, he guessed.

That was a good sign, Rodriguez thought, as was Franco’s pedigree. Franco’s mother, Nancy, has two big brothers in the league: not only Willy Aybar but Erick, who played 12 seasons with MLB Franco’s father, named Wander, played professionally but didn’t make the mayors. He named his sons Wander in the hopes that one would make the name famous, and while the two older brothers – Wander Alexander and Wander Javier – played the minors, the youngest, Wander Samuel, set to penetrate.

Sometimes, Rodriguez said, a child’s talent will really work against him. Yes, he can damage good pitches by flicking them badly, but he needs to know which pitches to take.

“Because his bat-to-ball skills are so good, sometimes he can hit the ball out of the zone or below that other players will just get through,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why that kind of hurts him a lot, to a degree, because that’s the outs that pitchers want him to do.”

Franco immediately thought: Of the league’s 948 minor records, he hit .331 and had more extra-base hits (95) than strikeouts (75). He defined his philosophy of hitting this way: “Make sure you find a pitch you want to hit, not just swing the balls,” he said. “Find a pitch you want to hit and pass the hands to make good contact.”

As a rookie, Franco hit .288 with a .347 on-base percentage and a .463 slugging percentage, helping the Rays to 100 wins, the most in the American League. He only scored 37 times in 308 plate appearances in the regular season, then went home twice and went 7 for 19 in a four-game division series loss to Boston.

According to MLB.com, from the date of Franco’s debut until the end of the regular season, he attacks against fastballs that are less common than two-thirds of all major hitters in the league. Against turning balls, he rarely strikes 95 percent of hitters, and against off-speed pitches (turns and splits), he has the lowest strikeout rate among the majors.

The smooth adaptation of the league’s main pitching – at 20 years old, with only 40 games over Class A – is amazing.

“Most people, you need the drill packages and you need the time to make these changes, and that’s what I think will happen,” said Chad Mottola, the Rays ’hitting coach. “But he’s the type of guy, if you tell him once, or he sees a certain tone once, he’s like, ‘That can’t beat me again.’ Your whole career, your whole life, you’ve been like, ‘OK, it’s good to have confidence, but it’ll take a little while.’ As he goes, ‘OK’ – and it really happens.

Mottola was a top prospect once, the fifth overall pick in the 1992 draft, a space ahead of Derek Jeter. The coaches insisted he change his swing, according to Mottola, and he lost his way as a hitter. Losing the game, he threw .200 of 125 intermittent bats.

As a coach, Mottola said, he only offers suggestions, not demands. To a student like Franco, however, there is not much to say. Perhaps, he says, the lesson is that a simple approach is best. Or maybe Franco was meant to be more delicious than studied, the kind of man who paints his destination on his skin, marks the moment he gets there and seems like he’s never going to leave.

“His mentality as a person makes it all come together,” Mottola said. “He really enjoyed it. The innocence he carried, which was in all of us before this game ruined it, he kept it. He signed this big contract and he kept everything. That’s the fun part for all of us: watching a kid play, where some of us are trying to survive this mess.

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