Right-handed reliever Miguel Castro will start in his place.
DeGrom is 2-2 with a 0.51 ERA and 59 strikeouts in five starts this season. He was recently named NL Pitcher of the Month for April.
Sticky stuff 101 – Everything you need to know as MLB’s foreign-substance crackdown begins
Beginning with Monday’s games, pitchers will be ejected and suspended for using illegal foreign substances to doctor baseballs as Major League Baseball ramps up its enforcement of an area that has been the talk of baseball in recent weeks.
But the start of MLB’s crackdown brings as many questions about how it will work as it does answers to an issue that has led to high strikeout rates and many debates across the sport. How will umpires go about conducting examinations of pitchers during games? What happens if a player is caught? How differently do pitchers and hitters feel about the steps being taken? And how much of an impact will this all have on the product we see on the field?
To help get you up to speed for the start of a new chapter for baseball, we asked ESPN MLB experts Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers to provide an FAQ-style breakdown of how the foreign-substance crackdown will play out across MLB.
How will umpires enforce MLB’s foreign-substance crackdown during games?
Rogers: Pitchers will be inspected after innings and/or when they come out of games. If they’re doing something suspicious during an at-bat, they can be checked between batters as well. Their hat, glove and belt will be looked at while the rest of the uniform is also in play if umpires deem it necessary. The one post-examination exception is for closers. They’ll be inspected before they pitch to avoid awkward walk-off moments. Umpires will be on the lookout for anything that feels or looks slick or sticky.
Gonzalez: And that is among the many elements that are fascinating about this. The league didn’t want to navigate the difficulty of suspending players retroactively based on findings from inspected baseballs, which would have undoubtedly triggered a litany of objections. Umpires, the league believes, have to be the enforcers. Maybe so. But this is asking a lot of those umpires, who are already under such heavy scrutiny with automated strike zones forthcoming. When a pitcher has to exit because he has been caught using foreign substances, umpires will be the ones who will hear it from coaches, players and fans, even though they’re merely acting on the league’s intentions.
What happens if someone is caught with a substance deemed to be against the rules?
Rogers: He will immediately be ejected and suspended for 10 days with pay. The team cannot replace the player on the roster.
Gonzalez: The memo sent to teams stated that repeat offenders will be subject to “more severe, progressive discipline,” though it’s unclear what that might actually look like.
How will this impact position players?
Rogers: If they’re acting suspicious as they visit a pitcher on the mound, they can be checked out by the umpires as well. Many infielders — especially during the colder months — have possessed a grip enhancer just like a pitcher does. As long as they don’t assist their own pitcher they probably won’t be subjected to a random check. If a position player comes in to pitch, he might need to switch gloves.
Why is this starting on June 21, two months into the season?
Rogers: MLB wanted to gather data before laying down the hammer. The league says it saw more evidence of sticky stuff on baseballs than it first imagined so it wanted to act before the game devolved into a three-true-outcome experience more than it has. Strikeouts are way up while batting averages have come down even more. The threat of the crackdown appears to be having an impact as June has been a better month of balls in play, although the warmer weather across baseball also can play a part in offensive improvements.
Gonzalez: The suddenness of this is still jarring to me. This could’ve been handled so much more smoothly, either by waiting until the forthcoming offseason to allow pitchers to adequately adjust to throwing the baseball without anything on it or by warning them about an upcoming crackdown before last offseason. The league has known for years that this had become a serious problem, with pitchers venturing outside of sunblock and pine tar to maximize spin rate. Why not push this sooner so that players had months to adjust, rather than force them to go cold turkey in the middle of a season? It’s a question a lot of pitchers have been asking.
How do these sticky substances help pitchers?
Gonzalez: The better the grip, the more spin that can be generated on breaking balls and four-seam fastballs, the latter of which use spin to create the “rising” illusion and, thus, produce swings and misses. Four-seam fastballs have essentially replaced sinkers in the modern game, making the use of sticky substances all the more prevalent. Trevor Bauer was conducting experiments on this way back in 2018, when he stated that added stick triggered an increase between 200 and 300 revolutions per minute on 90 mph fastballs.
But that’s only part of the story.
The other aspect of this is that the surface of major league baseballs has been found to be inconsistent and, at times, exceedingly difficult to grip. The memo issued to teams stated that “the rosin provided for on the mound … is sufficient alone to address any serious concerns about grip and control.” But that runs counter to what I have heard from several pitchers, who say the major league balls are often dusty and chalky — especially when a few days have passed since they were rubbed up — and are too difficult to grip without a tackier substance.
The league’s plan had been to come up with a uniform substance with which to rub up baseballs before the game, replacing the mud that had been utilized since the mid-20th century. Cracking down on everything before implementing that has predictably upset a lot of pitchers.
How much impact will this have on games starting this week?
Rogers: It’s doubtful we’ll see players ejected and suspended immediately. There’s too much attention on the subject right now. But we might see some elite pitchers look a little different than they have previously. That could mean reduced spin rates and hard contact going up — or just more contact, in general. A further reduction in strikeouts would make those in charge of baseball very happy.
Gonzalez: Perhaps it’s already starting to have an impact. On June 5, our own Buster Olney reported that major league umpires would begin strictly enforcing the use of foreign substances within weeks. At that point, the leaguewide slash line was .237/.312/.396 and the strikeout rate was 24.2%. Over the next 14 days, the leaguewide slash line rose to .248/.320/.416, while the strikeout percentage dropped to 23.0%. It’s important to note, though, that offense typically picks up when the weather gets warmer. But the average RPMs on four-seam fastballs was 2,316 from April 1 to June 5 and 2,260 from June 6 to 14. Usually you need RPM drops of 150 to 200 to really notice a difference in the way a baseball behaves. But that was by far the lowest two-week spin rate this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Gerrit Cole voices his frustration with issues gripping the baseball after MLB’s attempt to regulate foreign substances.
What are pitchers saying about the crackdown?
Rogers: It depends on whom you talk to. For obvious reasons, those who say they don’t use anything are all for the crackdown — think soft tossers and sinkerball artists. Others are wholeheartedly against outlawing the more innocent use of sunscreen and even pine tar, claiming they need it for grip. Then there’s Tyler Glasnow, who says not using anything in his last start led to his injury and will lead to others. Many pitchers are united in believing the league should have waited for the offseason to act.
Gonzalez: The pitchers I have spoken to are surprised the league lumped those who use pine tar or sunscreen in the same group with those who deploy more exaggerated grip enhancers like Spider Tack or Pelican Grip Dip, given that the league — and its hitters — have historically turned a blind eye to the former group. Perhaps the league thought it would be too difficult for umpires to make such a distinction within games. But there are potential adverse effects with this strategy, too, and one has to wonder if Glasnow won’t be the first to blame the league’s sudden enforcement strategy for injury.
What are hitters saying about the crackdown?
Rogers: Many are in favor of it, but some have a soft spot for the sunscreen users. If hit-by-pitches rise above their current level, you’ll see a cry for help — possibly from pitchers and hitters. Good grips help pitchers with control. That’s the argument that has historically been made and will continue to be made. The data might back it up.
Gonzalez: Also, though, this will undoubtedly help them gain some semblance of an advantage, and they’ll happily take it given how much of an advantage pitchers have gained through analytics. In the words of Justin Turner, a 13-year veteran and player rep: “All we want is a fair playing field across the board for everyone and everyone to have the same opportunities. Whatever the league had to do — as long as it’s fair and it’s across the board and it’s the same for everyone, I think that’s the main goal here.”
Tampa Bay Rays to call up shortstop Wander Franco, MLB’s top prospect
Franco, 20, is a switch-hitting infielder who entered the season ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel. In 39 games for Triple-A Durham, Franco hit .315/.367/.586 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs.
He will join the Rays for their series against the Boston Red Sox beginning Tuesday in Tampa, Florida.
The Rays are the midst of a six-game losing streak, their longest since an eight-game skid in May 2018, including four walk-off losses in their past five games, the last two of those 10-inning defeats to the Mariners.
The Rays have hit only .222/.300/.361 in June, ranking 25th in the majors in OPS, so they will turn to Franco to provide some offensive spark. Regarded as one of the best pure hitting prospects in recent decades, Franco has a career minor league average of .332 with more walks than strikeouts. He has thrived in Triple-A East, ranking 10th in OPS despite skipping Double-A while being the youngest player in the league.
Franco has played primarily shortstop at Durham, starting 28 games there, while also playing some third base and second base. Rookie Taylor Walls has been the primary shortstop for the Rays since they traded Willy Adames to the Milwaukee Brewers, but Walls has hit .237 with one home run in 26 games. Joey Wendle started at shortstop Sunday, but his best position is third base, which should clear shortstop for Franco if Walls is the player sent down to open a roster spot for Franco.
“Franco has been the best prospect in baseball for almost two years because of his unique combination of pedigree, tools and performance. He was the best international prospect in his signing class at least two years before he signed and is the best prospect baseball has seen in at least five years,” McDaniel wrote in his preseason top 100 rankings.
Franco will debut at 20 years and 113 days old, which will make him the second-youngest player in Rays history behind B.J. Upton, who debuted in 2004 at 19 years and 347 days.
The Rays held first place in the AL East from May 24 through June 18, but have been hit with injuries recently. Staff ace Tyler Glasnow was injured last Monday and subsequently landed on the 60-day injured list, the ninth Rays pitcher to go on the 60-day IL.
Despite the injuries, the pitching staff has held its own, ranking sixth in the majors with a 3.38 ERA. The Rays are hitting only .229, however, and have the second-worst strikeout rate in the majors. Franco’s contact ability should be a welcome change for the lineup.
There could be more help on the way as well, as McDaniel ranked the Rays’ farm system as best in the majors.
Infielder/outfielder Vidal Brujan has started games at six different positions for Durham and hit .274/.363/.514 with nine home runs, although he has slumped of late. Center fielder Josh Lowe is hitting .313/.365/.619 with nine home runs.
Pitcher Luis Patino, No. 21 on McDaniels’ top 100, has spent some time in the majors this season and could be on option to replace Glasnow in the rotation, although the Rays will carefully monitor his innings. They just recalled reliever Drew Rasmussen, who was part of the Adames trade, and he had pitched 11 1/3 scoreless innings at Durham with 23 strikeouts and two walks.
Passan — How Wander Franco became MLB’s next can’t-miss kid
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on June 11, 2019. Wander Franco has been told he has been called up to the majors by the Tampa Bay Rays on June, 20, 2021 and will join the team Tuesday.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Wander Franco, who at 18 years old is already the best prospect in baseball, strode into a suite at Bowling Green Ballpark. Franco smiled, which he does often, and the sunlight beaming into the room reflected off his braces. He sat on a stool in the back-left corner. Following him were his friends and roommates, Tony Pena, Osmy Gregorio and Joel Peguero. Even though Franco is at least three years younger than them, they all call him “El Patrón” — The Boss.
It was Tuesday, which meant mandatory English class for Latin American players at the Tampa Bay Rays‘ Class A affiliate. In front of the group stood David Kerr, who works down the street in marketing at Western Kentucky University’s English as a second language program and has taught Rays prospects for half a decade.
“Today we’re going to learn about sentences,” Kerr said. “Does anyone know what a sentence is? Probably not. You know what it means. You just don’t know you know what it means. Sentences are important for two reasons. No. 1: That’s how people talk. No. 2: They give people details. You know what details are?”
“I want to start with you, Franco,” Kerr said. “Tell me about the game last night, and try to use a good sentence.”
Franco grew up in the Dominican Republic and dropped out of school after sixth grade so he could train to become a professional baseball player. Four years later, at 16, he signed with the Rays for $3.825 million. Today that is considered a bargain.
Franco is a switch-hitting, home-run-thumping, smooth-fielding, mad-dashing shortstop. In a recent nine-game stretch, he saw 105 pitches and didn’t once swing and miss. In a league in which the average age is over 21, a teenager is clearly the alpha — like Zion Williamson, only with a bat and glove. Franco brings grown men to hyperbole.
“He’s human,” said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ farm director who for 45 years has combed the minor leagues cultivating talent, “but sometimes it’s tough to tell.”
Franco couldn’t help but look like a kid during class. He fidgeted with the earbuds in his hands, then tugged at the Jesus medallion hanging from a gold chain around his neck. He wants to learn English before he arrives in the major leagues, and considering when he wants to arrive in the major leagues, he takes the classes seriously. Franco is smart, perceptive and quick to digest instructions, but English is not yet like baseball, in which instinct guides him to the right place. Franco still hunts individual words and arranges them four or five at a time.
“The game last night … we tied the game after … como te digo … after the other team … the catcher, he hit home run.”
“That’s a good sentence!” Kerr said. “The catcher on the other team hit a home run. You told me why. You told me how. You guys know those words? What does ‘why’ mean? What does ‘how’ mean? What does ‘who’ mean?
“Like: Who are you, Franco?”
WE’LL GET TO THAT, though doing so requires asking and answering the other questions Kerr posed. Such as: Why Wander Franco? Why, of the more than 7,000 players in the minor leagues this season, will his name top the prospect lists that serve as road maps for the game’s future?
There is the inborn: the hand-eye coordination; the wiry body that developed into a muscled 5-foot-10, 190 pounds; the genetic jackpot of his father, also named Wander, who was a decent ballplayer, and his mother, Nancy, whose brothers, Erick and Willy Aybar, played a combined 17 major league seasons. Franco has his family to thank.
Then there is environment, the nurture yang to Franco’s nature yin. In Baní, the coastal city in the Dominican Republic where he grew up, Franco spent practically every day from the time he was 6 begging to play baseball with his older brothers, Wander Javier Franco and Wander Alexander Franco. They were good enough to sign with major league organizations. Wander Samuel Franco was something different altogether.
“I saw Vladimir Guerrero [Jr.]. He had the same confidence, the same presence. But I think Wander is better.”
Rei Ruiz, manager of the Bowling Green Hot Rods
It’s because of plate appearances such as one on May 6 that looks entirely innocuous in a play-by-play recap. “Wander Franco walks,” it says, and that is accurate. In the ninth inning of a tie game, with runners on first and second, Franco walked to load the bases. The scouts in town to see Franco and the rest of the Bowling Green Hot Rods took away much more. They saw Franco stare at a first-pitch curveball for a strike. Not eager to play hero; self-assured enough to work from behind. They watched him take a changeup that faded from the middle of the strike zone. Good pitch recognition. They marveled at how he handled six consecutive curveballs thereafter: take, foul, take, foul, foul, foul. Swung only at pitches in the zone. They venerated him for spitting on the ninth pitch, finally a fastball, as it sizzled three inches off the outside corner. A big league walk.
“I saw it,” Franco said matter-of-factly. “I knew it was going to be a ball.”
Franco carries himself with the self-assuredness limited to a subset of the small subset that comprises the world’s best players. Greatness can blossom from fear; Franco’s comes from certitude. He knows how good he is, how rare it is for a 17-year-old to walk into rookie ball, hit .351, slug 11 home runs in 61 games and walk 50 percent more than he strikes out, as he did last season. He knows, too, that the last player to ambush the Midwest League as an 18-year-old with his combination of power and patience was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and before that Carlos Correa, and before that Mike Trout.
“I saw Vladimir Guerrero,” said Rei Ruiz, Franco’s manager in Bowling Green. “He had the same confidence, the same presence. But I think Wander is better.”
Apocryphal stories abound. Going nearly two weeks without swinging and missing in baseball’s strikeout era sounds impossible. Rays executives still geek out when talking about what Franco did in a home run derby last year. All of Franco’s Bowling Green teammates regard his April 25 game with reverence. The opposing pitchers’ game plans were obvious: pound Franco, who was hitting left-handed, down and away. He saw three low pitches in the first inning and grounded out to third base. In his second at-bat, he hammered a single to left field. Then he gashed a home run to the opposite field. He followed by homering in his final at-bat, going the other way again.
“He’s human, but sometimes it’s tough to tell.”
Mitch Lukevics, Rays farm director
“He does some things you’ve never seen before on a baseball diamond,” Bowling Green third baseman Connor Hollis said. “A barehand play that you wouldn’t ever think to barehand — he makes it look easy. Hits two home runs oppo in the same game. There are some things you don’t ever see, and it leaves you astonished. You don’t know what to do.”
Hollis’ vantage point on the baseball world runs in contrast to Franco’s. He is 24 years old, signed with Tampa Bay last year as an undrafted free agent from the University of Houston and hit .365, beating Franco for the Appalachian League batting title. Hollis romanticizes the grind — the endless bus rides he tries to make tolerable with games of chess, the pittance of a salary that falls well below the poverty line, the notion that all the indignities of minor league life will make the major leagues feel that much sweeter. He also recognizes his place and that whereas Franco’s ascent to the Rays is a foregone conclusion, Hollis must set an example while playing well enough to advance through the system.
The travel, the autographs, the culture, the tedium — it’s all part of the education system for minor league players. Franco’s experience is simply a caffeinated version. Hollis’ baseball card goes for $2 on eBay. An autographed Franco card sold in early May for more than $60,000. Two dozen more Franco cards carry $2,000-plus price tags.
This makes Franco laugh. Thousands of dollars for a shiny piece of cardboard on which he scribbled “W. Franco.” It’s ridiculous, but then so is he: younger than all but three of the first-round picks in last week’s draft, hitting .322, slugging .517, walking 25 times compared with 18 strikeouts in low-A at 18. The numbers tell the same story as the scouts’ eyes, and they dovetail with what Franco believes of himself.
“I’ve got the tools to be a superstar,” he said. “I want to be in the Hall of Fame.”
HOW, WANDER FRANCO? This is a question asked directly. How, Wander, does the kid who came home from school unsure if he would have another meal that day, who grew up poor even for his impoverished country, wind up talking about his Cooperstown aspirations as a teenager? How, Wander, are you so ready for this? Ask this sort of thing enough, and he pulls up the sleeve on his shirt.
“This is my son,” Franco said, revealing a tattoo on his left arm and then pulling out his phone to show a picture. Wander Samuel Franco Jr. is 9 months old. Franco last saw him Feb. 12. “I remember the exact date,” he said. On Feb. 13, Franco flew to spring training, and since then, it has been nothing but FaceTime conversations with his girlfriend and their son.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Franco said. “I’ve got to hit. The kid needs a lot of milk.”
Since baseball started plundering the Dominican Republic for talent, some derivation of this aphorism has defined the young prospects’ existence. You can’t walk your way off the island or I play to provide for my family or The kid needs a lot of milk. Baseball is an opportunity, even if the organizations that crave talent from Latin America are themselves opportunistic. Last season, nearly 55% of minor league baseball players were born outside of the United States, and a majority of those were from the Dominican Republic. Teams nevertheless will spend a combined $300 million in signing bonuses for domestic draft picks this year, compared to the $160 million they’ve budgeted internationally.
“I’ve got the tools to be a superstar. I want to be in the Hall of Fame.”
In Latin America, the path Franco took is not unique. Thousands of kids drop out of school and train for eight hours a day, six days a week, to play baseball for a living. They swing wood bats. They face superior competition. At 16, they join professional organizations that can control their development. The kids, almost always poor, relish the chance, knowing full well that every year the game chews up and spits out hundreds who couldn’t cut it, leaving them unemployed and unschooled. Baseball’s relationship with Latin America is its ultimate Faustian bargain.
Franco was 10 years old the first time someone suggested he become a full-time baseball player. At a field in Baní, where grass grows in patches and small scraps of garbage dot the landscape, a local trainer was showcasing a few kids, one of them a 15-year-old pitcher Rudy Santin had come to see. Santin occupies a top spot on the food chain of buscónes, the trainer-agent hybrids who serve as vital middlemen in the Latin American baseball economy. He’ll pay smaller academies good money to take over a player’s training, knowing his relationships with major league teams can lead to seven-figure deals, of which he takes an exceedingly healthy cut.
Santin had spent more than 25 years as a scout in Latin America for the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Rays. In 2011, he opened the MVP Santin Baseball Academy in Santo Domingo. Nearly every year, it produced a million-dollar signing. The 15-year-old that day wasn’t up to Santin’s standards. The 10-year-old who kept asking to hit against him, on the other hand?
“He wasn’t afraid of anything,” Santin said. “You could just tell with his presence and body language. He had that ‘it’ factor.”
When the kid took some ground balls, Santin had to ask again: He’s 10? Yes. What’s his name? Wander Samuel Franco. “It was like watching a miniature big leaguer,” Santin said. Back then, in 2011, the youngest players at his academy were 12 or 13. He wanted Franco at 10 and tracked down his father to ask.
“I’d love to take him now,” Santin said.
The reply: “His mother will kill me.”
Santin left a glove and a pair of spikes for Franco on the condition that father call when son was ready to train full-time. Every so often, Santin would check in. Franco was growing, still playing with the older boys, such as Jose Ramirez, then a lightly regarded prospect but today a two-time All-Star for the Cleveland Indians. When a river near their houses, Rio Villa Majega, would dry up, they would use the area as a makeshift field, with a ball made of tape wrapped around socks and a smoothed-out branch to whack it. Like Franco, Ramirez’s strikeout rate is strikingly low, a testament perhaps to the power of hosiery, adhesive and whittling skills.
Everyone in Baní saw what Santin noticed early. Even in a cradle of excellence — a municipal area roughly the same size and population as Augusta, Georgia, Baní has produced more than 200 professional players since 2010 — Wander Samuel stood out. He was going to be better than his brothers, better than his uncles, maybe better than Miguel Tejada, another Baní native, who won an American League MVP award. Franco’s father called Santin. At 12 years old, he was ready, the final two years of elementary school be damned.
Santin said he paid $30,000 for Franco’s future negotiating rights, 50% more than he’d previously spent on a player. In addition, there was the expectation that until Franco reached 16, Santin would feed, house and clothe him. Upward of 30 kids at a time are under Santin’s supervision. They stay at a home he rents in Santo Domingo and sleep on bunk beds. He hires a cook to provide food, someone to clean their uniforms and a bus driver to transport them to and from the field where they practice. It’s a low-maintenance operation.
The trick is delivering pro-ready players. Just weeks after Franco turned 13, Santin held a news conference in Santo Domingo to trumpet him as the best player in the international class of 2017-18. Franco wore a black T-shirt and a look of awe. The wine bottles on the wall behind him might have been older than him. Radio hosts pilloried Santin for the stunt. The kid was 13. How could Santin know Franco would be that good?
He couldn’t, not for certain, but Santin joined a new generation of trainers who no longer sold players strictly on looks and power displayed in choreographed showcases. Teams want to leverage their international spending as rationally as possible, so buscónes have focused on cultivating plug-and-play players. Ones with triple-digit exit velocities and 90 mph-plus fastballs, the numbers scouts can sell to their brethren as well as their organizations’ analytics groups.
Those with the exceptional tools and the wherewithal to match, such as Franco, get fast-tracked. Teams are pushing Latin American players through the minor leagues — especially the lower minors — with the rapidity that used to be reserved for American prospects. In 2006, 15 of the 20 youngest players in the Midwest League were from the United States. In 2019, 18 of 20 are from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Entering this season, Guerrero and Fernando Tatis Jr. were baseball’s consensus top two prospects. Franco, Eloy Jimenez and Victor Robles also were across-the-board top 10. A year earlier, the game’s seven best prospects — Ronald Acuna Jr., Guerrero, Tatis, Jimenez, Robles, Gleyber Torres and Francisco Mejia — were Dominican or Venezuelan.
Accordingly, when a player of Franco’s talent comes along, the feeding frenzy begins. After Santin’s news conference, Danny Santana, the Rays’ supervisor in the D.R., came to see Franco. Scouts from the Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Blue Jays visited and filed glowing reports. By the time Franco turned 14, teams knew it would take an exorbitant guarantee to sign him, even if his body filled out early and didn’t have the projection they coveted. Santin said a team would have paid $6 million, a number confirmed by officials from two clubs. It would have set a record for a 16-year-old Dominican player.
Then in December 2016, the new collective bargaining agreement capped international spending. Latin American amateurs already provided the greatest return on investment in baseball. Now they would come even more cheaply. Without restrictions in 2017, the Yankees were almost certain to spend the $6 million and sign Franco, according to multiple sources. The new rules scuttled that, and Tampa Bay swooped in with the largest bonus in the class.
The repercussions didn’t affect just Franco. Ugliness caused inadvertently by capped spending has rippled throughout Latin America. Teams, knowing how much money they have to spend in any given year, have pushed to lock in handshake agreements with the most talented players, even those as young as 13. Some buscónes believe that if teams want 13-year-olds, the kids need to look older to warrant seven-figure bonuses. Rogue trainers, multiple sources in Latin America said, do not hesitate to feed prepubescent kids performance-enhancing drugs.
Again, the league is saying the right things. It is testing earlier for PEDs and blacklisting the buscónes whose players test positive. It’s doubling down on an international draft, which it believes will rid the early deals, the incentivization of abhorrent behavior by the worst trainers empowered by a system that enables them. The league wants to clean up Latin America, wants real, substantive change. But does it really? Despite all of the flaws and maybe in part because of them, the international rules create exactly what teams desire: a cost-effective, reliable talent pipeline while the sport struggles to engage many of the best American athletes. It’s a chance at more kids like Wander Franco.
“I’ve got a cousin,” Franco said. “He’s 9 years old. He’s going to be really good.”
“WHO ARE YOU, Franco?”
The kid who didn’t mind going to Rudy Santin’s academy because that meant one fewer mouth his mom needed to feed, who celebrated when he realized he was going to sign for millions of dollars because his mother, he said, “wouldn’t go through any problems now.” That’s who he wants to be. And he is more, of course. The cook at the apartment in Bowling Green who makes his teammates a mean rice and beans and chicken. The clown who jumps on Tony Peña’s bed to wake him up. The guy who, at the new house he bought his parents, the one with a pool, pushes a fully clothed Osmy Gregorio into the water late at night just for laughs. Franco is 18 going on 30 until he is 18 going on 10.
There is a story Gregorio likes to tell about Franco. They met in 2015 at a tryout. Gregorio was a late-blooming 17-year-old, Franco a cock-of-the-walk 14-year-old. Gregorio signed the next year with Seattle and was traded to Tampa Bay a few months after Franco joined the organization. They reconnected at instructional league and grew close.
“It’s a big responsibility. I’ve got to hit. The kid needs a lot of milk.”
Wander Franco on his 9-month-old son in the Dominican Republic, whom he hasn’t seen since February.
Gregorio was at Franco’s house in Baní last offseason when he got a call from home. Something was wrong. His mom, Monica Rosario, was sick. He rushed to get home, three hours away. Gregorio was an only child. His mom was showing stroke-like symptoms. He needed to take care of her but didn’t have any money.
“Wander paid for the doctor and everything,” Gregorio said. “He doesn’t think like an 18-year-old. He’s humble. He cares.”
Franco’s friends call him El Patrón partly in jest because he does pay for meals and bought a sound system to take on the road to placate Ruiz, the Hot Rods’ manager, who loves music and insists it play in the clubhouse. But it’s also out of reverence because they knew he would help get Gregorio’s mother the medical care she needed to aid in her recovery.
All of it is a lot: being El Patrón, being a father, being the best prospect in baseball. The Rays want to be careful with Franco. They don’t doubt that he can juggle everything; one doesn’t star at a news conference at 13 and take nothing from it. They also appreciate the fragility of someone such as this. They don’t want to be the ones who screwed up Wander Franco.
So they try to temper their enthusiasm, only to fall back into that trap of expectation that Franco has inadvertently built since Santin laid eyes on him as a 10-year-old. Last September, the Rays brought some of their best fall instructional league prospects to Tropicana Field to participate in a home run derby. In the final round, Franco trailed by 10. He chipped away, swing by swing, and then dusted the field. Franco was 17 years old and swatted 15 home runs to beat legitimate prospects Ronaldo Hernandez and Moises Gomez, both three years older, and all of this might sound far-fetched were it not the norm.
This is why the scouts who pass through Bowling Green struggle to be even slightly critical of Franco. Despite his well-above-average speed, he isn’t yet a good baserunner. The worst anyone can say is that he’s likely to end up at second base because of his size, range and arm strength — and even then, two scouts came up with the same comparison: Robinson Cano, but as a switch-hitter.
Franco has plenty of time to make eight All-Star teams and $300 million like Cano. For now, he plies his trade at Bowling Green Ballpark, the sort of place where Zoie the Local 6 Weather Dog fetches the first pitch, where weekday games during the school year start at 10:35 a.m. so scores of kids can pile into the stadium and dance together when “Old Town Road” plays on the loudspeaker, where the Ooyee Gooyee Burger goes for $8. Inside the high-ceilinged hall of the building’s front entrance is a display featuring photographs of all the Bowling Green Hot Rods who have made the major leagues in the team’s 10-year history. Someday soon, Franco will join the wall.
Next comes a promotion to high-A Charlotte, which shouldn’t be too far off, not as Franco enters his third month of treating the Midwest League like glorified batting practice. The Rays intend to jump him level to level, like the Blue Jays did Guerrero, though Franco’s personal timetable to the major leagues is a touch more accelerated.
“Next year,” he said, and unlike almost everything else during an interview in Ruiz’s office, this came from his mouth in English. Franco understood the question clearly: When do you expect to be in the major leagues? He didn’t need to use a full sentence to make his point. Over the course of the nearly hourlong conversation, Franco defaulted to English just once more. Kerr, his teacher, told him to practice whenever he could, and in this case, the question about why he loves baseball seemed to resonate.
“It is my family,” he said. “My country.”
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