December 5, 2022

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'A special, special player': Franco dazzling rivals, teammates

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This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG — Cubs manager David Ross had personally witnessed Wander Franco play exactly one game Wednesday afternoon when he was asked about the Rays’ star shortstop.

“Is he any good?” Ross replied Wednesday, smiling and drawing laughs from the Chicago media at Wrigley Field. Ross knew what he was talking about, though.

“What stands out to me is there’s real power from the right side. Great athlete. Speed. Defense. Seemed to flick the ball to left [Tuesday night] on a ball up and away, and it just jumped off his bat,” Ross continued. “That’s a pretty good indication that he’s a pretty well-rounded baseball player. And I’d say, yeah, I definitely think he is good.”

As opinions go, that’s a pretty safe one.

Franco couldn’t have planned a much better start to his first full season in the Majors, living up to the post-debut hype about as capably as he lived up to all the prospect hype last year. He has impressed rival players, coaches and scouts. He has done the same for Tampa Bay’s staff and coaches. He’s blowing away his own teammates, who can’t say enough good things about the 21-year-old switch-hitter.

Said rookie outfielder Josh Lowe: “Glad he’s our teammate. He’s special, and that’s who he’s going to be for the next 10 or 11 years. It’s incredible to watch him do what he’s doing, and it’s the same guy. … His hand-eye coordination is probably the best I’ve ever seen of anybody. And he’s also a really, really, really good baseball player.”

Added center fielder Kevin Kiermaier: “We sit here and just talk amongst each other. … I feel fortunate being able to see the start, his rookie campaign last year and the start he’s got off to this year. I think that’s just what he’s going to be about for however many years he wants to do this. It is incredible how easy he makes the game look. He is a special, special player.”

And manager Kevin Cash: “He’s unique, special, talented, and we’re seeing it in every part of his game.”

As of Friday afternoon, Franco was tied for first in the Majors with 20 hits and seven doubles while ranking fifth in batting average (.392) and second in expected batting average (.417). He’s somehow striking out even less often than last year, with only four in 53 plate appearances, and his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate have ticked up from his rookie season.

Franco is so advanced as a hitter that hitting coach Chad Mottola said he’s “really minimized my role with him.” He’s bound to walk more often and hit more homers as the year goes on. But really, what else would you change?

“You can’t put a ceiling on him,” Mottola said. “That’s the whole thing. … It’s just fun.”

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