Updated: Oct 14, 2021
You know his name. You know that he's the number one prospect in baseball. You know he's still a teenager (though he'll turn 20 in March). You know he is special. Here are two things we don't know:
Will he play in the Major Leagues in 2021?
If so, what should we expect his production to be?
Before the 2020 season began, there were rumblings and whispers that Wander Franco could make his Major League debut in the upcoming season even though he hadn't played at a higher level than A+. When asked in a February 2020 interview what the Rays's plans for Wander Franco are, particularly with respect to a call-up, Rays GM Erik Neader said that while the organization wouldn't force anything or place additional expectations on him, "if he picks up where he left off [in 2019] . . . it's conceivable that there's conversations to be had there deep into the season."
Franco was in camp for Grapefruit league action in March, doing well and making the most of the few opportunities he was given. Obviously everyone's plans changed when Major League Baseball suspended Spring Training and left the 2020 season an open question.
When MLB announced the plan and structure for the shortened 2020 season, speculation about a Franco debut continued when the Rays included him in their 60-man player pool.
The callup never happened, but the teases continued as Franco was included in the playoff roster pool and photos of his jersey with a World Series patch made the rounds on Twitter,
The idea that Wander Franco would make his MLB debut during the World Series was fun, but not serious.
He will debut in 2021. Book it. That answers question 1.
To answer question 2 (what should we expect his production to be?) we need to guess playing time and assess skills. Let's assess playing time first.
We need to make several assumptions. First, Wander Franco is an elite, special kind of talent, so despite the fact that the Rays love to move players around, platoon, and spread playing time, we're going to assume that when Wander Franco comes up, he plays every day. Second, we should assume that the Rays will want to control Wander Franco for as long as they can and delay arbitration as long as they can. So, unless they sign him to an extension, Wander Franco will not come up until mid-June, which under Super Two rules will give them both an extra year of control and delayed arbitration. Others will predict a late April call-up, which gives the Rays that extra control year, but I don't see it. They don't need him immediately anyway. Willy Adames is a good shortstop and the Rays need to figure out how to fit Franco into the lineup. They'll move players around or make a trade (probably both). Giving Franco a few months in AA and AAA provides them with the time they need to figure all of that out. Hopefully Franco will be banging the door down for a call-up come June, which will be the Rays equivalent of a major mid-season acquisition. Let's call it 350 plate appearances.
So what do 350 plate appearances from Wander Franco look like in the Major Leagues? Let's look at the skills he displayed across three levels over two seasons in the minor leagues on this table, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Video game numbers. Seriously. And it isn't just the leagues he's playing in. With over 155 wRC+ at every stop, he is in a class all his own. Take a look at the Appalachian League, sorted by wRC+ (minimum 200 PAs):
He's fifth overall, but the youngest by two full years. And look at his strikeout rate. It's the lowest by a percentage point and a half. He wasn't even old enough to vote. Now look one year later in the Midwest League:
Same fifth overall by wRC+, but this time he's three years younger than the other leaders. And once again, look at the strikeout rates. He's at 7.4% and nobody else is even below 23%! Look at his strikeout to walk ratio (1.5). It's a full point higher than anyone else. He also has the highest batting average and the lowest BABIP! These other players are full grown men crushing younger competition. Franco is still a child, crushing everybody. Let's see how he looked when he got bumped to A+ in the Florida state league. Franco ranked first when I set the minimum to 200 PAs, so I dropped it to 100:
Shout out to Alec Bohm, but Franco is still the standout here at an age four years his younger. Same story. High walk rate, low K rate, high average, (relatively) low BABIP.
The biggest quibble with these numbers is that Wander Franco hasn't been challenged, and it's hard to imagine he felt challenged in 2020. How does one project a player like this? I tried to put major league equivalents together for his minor league numbers, but I honestly didn't believe what they showed, so I kind of "stepped on them" to knock them down further. Here's what I put together for 350 plate appearances from Wander Franco in 2021:
Not eye-popping, but very good. Were I a betting man, I'd say Wander Franco will beat this line given the opportunity, but that's not a game I'm playing in 2021 redraft leagues. If I could draft Wander Franco in a Draft Champions league after pick 300, I'm all over it, but I doubt he lasts that long, especially as the calendar turns over to 2021.
In dynasty leagues, Wander Franco remains the crown jewel asset to have. In a year or two, the projection above could look downright insulting.
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