Wander Franco and the Tampa Bay Rays are ready to repeat

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The first thing you notice, up close to Wander Franco, is a tattoo of the Major League Baseball logo on the left ...


PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The first thing you notice, up close to Wander Franco, is a tattoo of the Major League Baseball logo on the left side of his neck. Franco had already had it on June 22, when he made his debut for the Tampa Bay Rays, as if pre-certified for stardom. During the winter, he had the date inscribed above the emblem.

Consider it a handy reminder — a thousand times over the next 11 seasons, the Rays hope — of Franco’s self-confidence and how he supported it that very first night. He fouled the first two pitches he saw, then walked. He then punched a three-run homer and doubled. He took 10 swings, connected nine times and didn’t hit.

At a time when many hitters are willing to sacrifice contact for power, Franco, who turned 21 this month, takes a more logical approach.

“Well, if you want to hit a home run, you have to make contact,” he said, through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, at the Rays’ spring training club the week last. “So in my head, I know that if I can get in touch, good things are going to happen.”

The Rays have counted on a lot of good things for many years. In November, they signed Franco to an 11-year, $182 million contract (with a club option for 2033), the richest contract in major league history for a player with less than a year of service. service. It was a staggering commitment for a franchise that has never had an annual payroll of $80 million as it enters its 25th season.

“But he also trusts us,” said general manager Peter Bendix. “He shows that we’re going to be there to support him, that we’re putting him in a position to succeed, that we’re going to build good teams around him. These are the two parties who trust each other for a very long time. »

Franco was 7 years old, at his home in the Dominican Republic, when his uncle, Willy Aybar, played for Tampa Bay in the 2008 World Series. The family TV lost energy during one of the games, Franco recalls with a laugh , so he couldn’t watch the entire series, which Philadelphia won in five games. But he had the idea: the Rays were very good, and always will be.

As of that 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 the basis for the long-term deal.

“There’s a lot of communication between everyone, the development of players in the minor leagues is amazing and the way they run their business is great,” Franco said. “They always gave me this opportunity and supported me.”

The Rays started following Franco when he was 14 years old. Carlos Rodriguez, vice president of baseball operations and director of international scouting, was drawn to Franco’s loose, whipping swing on both sides of the plate. Yet when Rodriguez picked up Franco’s bat, it felt heavy for a young teenager, a man’s bat – 33 or 34 ounces, he guessed.

It was a good sign, Rodriguez thought, and so was Franco’s pedigree. Franco’s mother, Nancy, has two major league brothers: not only Willy Aybar but also Erick, who played 12 seasons in the MLB. Franco’s father, also named Wander, played professionally but didn’t make the majors. He named his sons Wander in hopes that one would make the name famous, and while two older boys – Wander Alexander and Wander Javier – played in the minors, the youngest, Wander Samuel, was destined to break through.

At times, Rodriguez said, the kid’s talent was actually working against him. Yes, he could waste good pitches by foul, but he had to learn which pitches to take.

“Because his bat-to-ball skills were so good, sometimes he would hit a ball away from the area or down that other players were going through,” Rodriguez said. “So that hurt his average, to some extent, because those are the outs the pitchers wanted him to make.”

Franco caught on quickly: in 948 minor league plate appearances, hit .331 and had more extra-base hits (95) than strikeouts (75). He distilled his hitting philosophy this way: “Really make sure you see a pitch you want to hit, not just hit balls,” he said. “Look for a pitch you want to hit and reach out to make good contact.”

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

According to MLB.com, from the date of Franco’s debut until the end of the regular season, he hit against fastballs less often than two-thirds of all major league hitters. Against breaking balls, he hit less often than 95% of batters, and against out-of-speed pitches (changes and splits) he had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors.

To adapt so easily to major league pitching — at age 20, with just 40 games above Class A — was astounding.

“Most human beings need exercise programs and time to make those adjustments, and that’s what I thought was going to happen,” Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “But he’s the kind of guy, if you tell him once, or if he sees a certain pitch once, he’s like, ‘It’s not going to beat me anymore. Your whole career, your whole life, you’re like, ‘OK, it’s good to have confidence, but it’s going to take a little time.’ As he goes, ‘OK’ – and it really happens.

Mottola was a top prospect once, the fifth overall pick in the 1992 draft, one spot ahead of Derek Jeter. Coaches insisted he change his swing, Mottola said, and he wandered off as a hitter. Beaten by the game, he hit .200 in 125 intermittents at bat.

As a coach, Mottola said, he only offers suggestions, not demands. With a student like Franco, however, there is not much to say. Perhaps, he said, the lesson is that a simple approach is best. Or maybe Franco is meant to be savored more than studied, the kind of person who writes his destination on his skin, marks the moment he has arrived, and seems never to leave.

“His mentality as a person makes it all come together,” Mottola said. “He’s really having fun. The innocence he brings, that we all had before this game ruined him, he has kept. He signed this big contract and he kept everything. This is the most fun part for all of us: watching a kid play a game, while the rest of us are trying to survive this mess. »

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Newsrust - US Top News: Wander Franco and the Tampa Bay Rays are ready to repeat
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