With the Wander Franco era set to begin Tuesday in Tampa, we wondered what to expect from the consensus No. 1 prospect in his first taste of the big leagues.
Franco will debut at the young age of 20 years, three months and 21 days, becoming the current youngest player in MLB, as he heads the RotoProspects top 300.
The Dominican shortstop’s loudest attribute is his hit tool, which has drawn the rarely-handed out 80 grade from scouts. Since Vladimir Guerrero Jr. also arrived in the majors carrying an 80-hit tool, that would be a good place to start for expectations.
Guerrero debuted on April 26, 2019, at the age of 20 years, 1 month and 10 days. He had put up some pretty amazing triple-slashes in the upper minors, including .402/.449/.671 in Double-A in 2018, .336/.414/.564 in Triple-A in 2019, and .367/.441/.700 in Triple-A in 2019.
By comparison, Franco had a .315/.367/.586 in Triple-A this season. We were robbed by the pandemic from seeing what Franco could do in Double-A in 2020, so we’ll have to settle for his Vlad-like triple-slashes in Low-A of .318/.390/.506 and .339/.408/.464 in High-A in 2019.
It may be getting lost in the brilliance that has been Vlad’s performance this season (.337/.440/.671 through June 20), but was just decent in his first taste of the bigs. Guerrero went 1-for-4 in his first game, 3-for-21 in the first week and didn’t hit his first homer until his 14th game (although he did hit two at San Francisco in that one).
Vlad started to heat up with excellent months in July (.284, 3 HR, 16 R, 20 RBIs) and August (.341, 4 HR, 9 R, 16 RBIs) but finished on a low note in September (.232, 0 HR, 5 R, 10 RBIs). He finished his rookie season with a triple-slash of .272/.339/.433 with 15 homers, 52 runs and 69 RBIs in 514 plate appearances.
Guerrero’s second season was nearly a carbon copy with a .262/.329/.462 with 9 homers, 34 runs and 59 RBIs, playing in all 60 games.
So if Franco spends the next two seasons with an OPS in the upper-.700s, there will be some disappointed fantasy owners.
Some other elite prospects to examine how Franco might come out of the gates are Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr.
Tatis debuted on March 28, 2019, at the age of 20 years, two months and 26 days, going 2-for-3 in his first game and hitting his first homer in his fifth game. He would battle injuries, limiting him to just 84 games, but Tatis was dynamic with a .317/.379/.590 with 22 homers, 61 runs, 53 RBIs and 16 steals in 372 plate appearances.
Soto debuted on May 20, 2018, at the age of 19 years, six months and 25 days, going 0-for-1, but a day later he went 2-for-4 with his first home run. In a strange twist, his official first home run came on May 15 while he was still in Double-A, because the Nationals’ game that day was suspended so that when it was finally completed on June 18, Soto’s homer off Yankees reliever Chad Green was credited as his first dinger. Soto started out hot with a .998 OPS in May, a .1.050 in June and finished his rookie season with a .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers, 77 runs, 70 RBIs and 5 steals in 116 games and 494 plate appearances.
Acuna debuted on April 25, 2018, at the age of 20 years, four months and seven days, going 1-for-5, but a day later he went 3-for-4 with a homer. He finished his first week 10-for-27 with a homer and a steal but cooled off in May with a 14-for-83 (.169) two homers in a three-week stretch. At the All-Star break Acuna was batting .249 with seven homers and two steals, but he broke loose in the second half with a .322/.403/.625 with 19 homers and 14 steals. Franco’s fantasy owners would be overjoyed if he follows a similar path to any of Tatis, Soto or Acuna, as they’ve each become elite, top-10 overall players in their early-20s.
A cautionary tale would be Jurickson Profar, who was the No. 1 prospect back in midseason 2012 and entering the 2013 season.
Profar debuted on Sept. 2, 2012, at the age of 21 years, six months and 10 days, going 2-for-4 with a homer. Profar’s rookie season in 2013 was awful – .234/.308/.336 with six homers and two steals. Injuries and poor performances plagued the Curacaoan shortstop until his first useful fantasy season in 2018 at age 25 when he put up a .254/.335/.458 with 20 homers, 82 runs, 77 RBIs and 10 steals. Now 28 years old, Profar has a career .236/.318/.384 with 60 homers and 40 steals in 614 games.
Injuries are the great equalizer, as Profar’s body got old in a hurry, but that’s probably about the worst-case scenario for Franco.
More likely for Franco would be some struggles like Vlad’s first two seasons or Acuna’s first half-season, but with flashes of Tatis and Soto.
Projection systems are notoriously pessimistic on young rookies, so it’s not surprising to see a consensus rest-of-season projection of about a .275/.335/.425 with eight homers and six steals in 300 plate appearances.
Putting on our rose-colored glasses for Franco, we see more like a .285/.350/.450 with 12 homers and 10 steals the rest of the way.
Dynasty owners have to be ready to show patience, as you never know when a young prospect starts out more like Jarred Kelenic this season (.096 with two homers and three steals in 23 games before heading back to Triple-A) or Mike Trout in his debut season of 2011 (.220 with five homers and four steals in 40 games).
In terms of plate discipline, Franco most resembles Guerrero, having more walks than strikeouts in the minors. Franco has a career walk rate of 10.8% compared to a strikeout rate of 7.0% in the minors. Vlad had a minor-league walk rate of 12.0% compared to a strikeout rate of 11.0%.
Players with those type of contact skills can take a while to come into their power. That’s part of why we’re forecasting just 12 homers for Franco the rest of the way. The hit tool and contact skills should result in an excellent batting average out of the gate and Franco has the speed to contribute on the base paths too. Eventually, we see Franco following in the footsteps of Tatis, Soto and Acuna to become a top-10 fantasy player over the next couple years, but don’t freak out if it takes a month or two to hit his stride.