The Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated from the postseason on Monday night, losing their best-of-five American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox in four games. The Rays, the AL's top seed, will now retreat to St. Petersburg for the winter while the Red Sox advance to the Championship Series for a forthcoming date with either the Houston Astros or the Chicago White Sox.
The Rays, as usual, are in for a winter of redesign. One front office member with another organization joked to CBS Sports earlier this summer that the only question about ace Tyler Glasnow's future with Tampa Bay is whether or not he's traded before the non-tender deadline. The Rays could use this offseason to move other established core pieces whose salaries no longer mesh with their strict self-imposed financial limitations, such as outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows or second baseman Brandon Lowe, who again struggled mightily during the postseason.
Whatever the Rays do this winter, whoever they send packing, there's one player who is certain to be on the roster come the start of next season: phenom infielder Wander Franco, who did everything in his power to keep Tampa Bay afloat in the ALDS. Franco had seven hits in 19 ALDS at-bats (.368 average), and four of those hits went for extra bases (two doubles, two home runs).
Franco, who can't legally drink until next March, arrived in the majors in June with absurd expectations. He was the No. 1 prospect in baseball well before the pandemic wiped out a full minor-league season, and he was the No. 1 prospect in baseball when minor-league baseball returned in May. Franco has been such a precocious talent that a rival evaluator estimated in 2019, half-jokingly at most, that he was ready for the majors. He was 19 years old and playing with Tampa Bay's High-A affiliate.
Between the hype and the overexposure, it would've been easy for Franco to underwhelm once he reached the Show. He didn't. Instead, Franco hit .288/.347/.463 (129 OPS+) with seven home runs in 70 games. At one point, he reached base in an unimaginable 43 consecutive games. That streak was fueled in part by his preternatural ability to make contact. His 84 percent contact rate ranked in the 92nd percentile among batters with at least 300 trips to the plate this season.
Here are a few other tidbits that highlight Franco's bat-to-ball skills:
- He struck out two or more times in seven of his 70 games. Five of those occurred within his first 20 games in the majors. None of them occurred after his 31st game. In other words, he was at his stingiest to strike out once the league would've had enough time to formulate gameplans against him.
- He had four different stretches where he went at least four games without striking out, including one where he went nine games between Ks. All of those games -- 22 combined -- came no earlier than Aug. 14.
- To piggyback off that last tidbit, he played in 30 regular season games from Aug. 15 onward. During that span, he hit .355/.409/.545 with nearly nine times as many hits (43) as strikeouts (five). Franco had twice as many walks as strikeouts as well as three times as many extra-base hits as strikeouts.
When Franco was promoted to the majors, we compared him to Cleveland Guardians third baseman José Ramírez. Check this out: Franco hit .288/.347/.463. Ramírez's career line is .278/.354/.501. It's not apple for apple, but Franco is at the start of his big-league voyage; Ramírez is a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger.
Finding nits to pick in Franco's game is challenging. You can point to his defense, which graded as below-average by Statcast (and he made a throwing error in the eighth inning of ALDS Game 4). Yet that issue might resolve itself, as the Rays are believed to prefer Taylor Walls at shortstop, perhaps forcing Franco to the hot corner as soon as next spring. The criticism more likely to stick concerns his lesser performance against right-handed pitching … though even then, those struggles came in fewer than 200 plate appearances and saw him make 14 "hard outs," per TruMedia's definition. If half of those had gone for singles, Franco's line against righties would've improved from .251/.308/.388 to a perfectly fine .290/.343/.426.
Even so, let's remember something about Franco: his youth. He's nearly 18 months younger than Henry Davis, the catcher who the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted No. 1 in July. He's only a little more than a year older than Jordan Lawlar, the prep shortstop the Arizona Diamondbacks took at No. 6. Both those players have bright futures ahead, and so does Franco -- his brilliance isn't projection and projection alone, however.
For as uncertain as the Rays' future is -- in terms of their roster and their stadium and ownership situations -- they have one definitive to lean on. His name is Wander Franco, and he's a sure thing.