By Nathan Mayberg
The legend of Wander Franco is still in its infancy. For baseball fans lucky enough to have witnessed the shortstop play for the Charlotte Stone Crabs, they are catching a ballplayer that talent evaluators rarely see.
His abilities are so clearly defined that at 18-years-old he is without any debate considered to have the highest ceiling of any player in the minor leagues.
More than 6,000 pitchers and hitters will play minor league baseball this year.
As the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent promotion of stud pitching prospect Shane McClanahan from Class-A Advanced Charlotte to Double-A Montgomery after nine games shows, a great talent can shoot through Charlotte like a comet.
In 36 games with Charlotte, Franco has hit .323 with nine doubles and 19 RBIs. He has a .392 on-base percentage with 17 walks compared to 10 strikeouts.
Franco is a throwback.
Based on his Charlotte statistics, his strikeout numbers would equate to 45 for a full big-league season. His 12.7 at-bat to strikeout ratio would be the best in the majors since 2015 when Daniel Murphy led the category.
Over a 34-game stretch from his call-up to Charlotte June 25 to August 6, Franco reached base safely in every game except for a July 28 contest when he had one at-bat as a pinch hitter. His one slump was August 7 when he went hitless in a daytime doubleheader which followed a late modified doubleheader the night before against Bradenton.
He fights off strikeouts in an age where they are almost accepted.
In a game July 24, he fouled off six pitches before doubling on the 10th pitch against Jupiter. During a two-week stretch with Bowling Green, he is reported to have not missed contact on a swing.
He is a switch hitter, a fading art form once mastered by greats like Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Chipper Jones, Carlos Beltran and Eddie Murray.
Franco has been a dangerous hitter from both sides of the plate. As of Aug. 7, his batting average at Charlotte from the right side is .333 and .320 from the left.
His on-base percentage against right-handers is .403, compared to .333 against lefties. He is slugging .542 from the right side compared to .466 from the left.
“Everytime I come to the plate, I try to be calm. I try to be relaxed and look for my pitch and I try to learn from guys too at this level because in here the pitchers like to throw more breaking balls and off-speed pitches,” Franco said through Stone Crabs assistant coach and translator Ivan Ochoa.
“So now I need to be more patient at the plate and more (selective) and that’s what I’m doing right now,” Franco said.
It is uncertain how long Franco will stay here. He will likely be with the team as they fight off the St. Lucie Mets for a playoff spot (Charlotte is two games ahead as of Aug. 7).
While fans see the finished product of Franco at the game, it’s just a small part of what Franco does. An hour and a half before Tuesday’s doubleheader with Bradenton, Franco was on the field in sweltering heat taking grounder after grounder, making throws to second and taking reps at first.
The chiseled physique of the 5’10 Dominican Republic native stood out as he positioned himself at the center of the diamond like a captain, the rays of the sun beaming off his gold necklace and his blondish dyed hair sticking out from the back of his cap.
In batting practice, Franco pummelled the ball from both sides. In the game, Franco missed a home run by inches as he connected on a double from the left side of the plate that hit the top of the wall. Franco showed off his motor by reaching third on the play after a throw home. It’s not hard to foresee that swing easily being a home run in no time.
A five-tool player blessed with speed, a great glove, great arm, the ability to hit for average and power, Franco has a focused determination in his eyes. He is not satisfied with his results even though his batting average and .872 OPS would lead the Florida State League with more at-bats.
He comes from a strong baseball family and has a close relationship with his father Wander, a former professional ball player. His two older brothers both played in the minors. Former Angels shortstop Erick Aybar and 2008 Rays infielder Willy Aybar are uncles.
He has been a switch-hitter since he first learned how to play baseball from his father at the age of six. “My dad is my mentor. He started teaching me from both sides when I was little,” he said.
“Everything I do right now, have right now, is because of my father because he taught me everything about baseball,” Franco said. “He continues to teach me, he can teach me about every situation. You never stop learning.”
Franco is unphased by the change from Bowling Green to Charlotte. “Here it’s a little bit different … They throw hard in Bowling Green (too),” he said.
“If you don’t give me my pitch, I will take the breaking ball. If you don’t throw a strike, I’m not going to swing,” he said regarding his approach at the plate. Franco has been lauded for his split-second pitch recognition by manager Jeff Smith, who has compared him to three-time batting champ Joe Mauer.
Growing up, Franco looked up to Cleveland Indians slugger Jose Ramirez, who lived in his neighborhood. Though Ramirez is eight years older, they played ball together in their native city of Bani when they were young, Franco said. “He lived close to my family.”
For Charlotte third baseman Jake Palomaki, who has played with Franco at Bowling Green and Princeton, it is Franco’s defense which has shown the biggest improvement with Charlotte.
“He’s special at the plate. He knows it. He carries himself with confidence but not in a cocky way,” Palomaki said. “If you get him out, you are doing something right. This game at this level is coming pretty easy to him.”
Franco looks like a future Gold Glove winner. He slows the game down by using his speed to attack ground balls and end the play with his quick release.
If Stone Crabs fans miss Franco this month, they might not get this good of a look at him until he starts returning to Charlotte for Spring Training games.
Franco is showing the makings of a guy baseball fans can one day brag that they saw a baseball great play when he was just 18 and a minor leaguer.