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ST. PETERSBURG — Wander Franco has been to Tropicana Field in the past for an instructional league game and home run derby, and to collect some awards for his play in the minor leagues.
But that was nothing compared to Tuesday, when he walked in as a big-leaguer, heading into the Rays clubhouse where a No. 5 jersey was hanging in his locker, then onto the field, where he would make his debut as a 20-year-old, batting second and playing third base.
“It’s one of those things where it’s still hard to believe,” Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “You walk in and can’t really believe it. I’ve walked in here before to receive awards, but as a player, it’s a little different.”
Since signing with the Rays as a 16-year-old in July 2017 for a $3.85 million bonus, since tearing through two seasons in the low minors, since being named the consensus top prospect in the game for two straight years — and especially since reporting to major league spring training in February — he has been focused intently on getting to this day.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” Franco said. “So I feel really good about it.”
Even better afterward, given his performance.
The highlight was a three-run, game-tying homer in the fifth inning for his first big-league hit, which he capped with a curtain call for the roaring Tropicana Field crowd of 12,994, bumped up by a couple thousand after his promotion was announced Sunday night.
Franco also had a double, a walk after starting with an 0-2 his first time to the plate, and several defensive plays, starting a double play in the eighth.
“I’m glad that things went as well as they did,” he said afterward. “I’m very happy.”
The Rays wanted to wait until they felt the time was right, so they had Franco play for six weeks at Triple-A Durham, where he again starred. They also wanted to get past the estimated mid-June cutoff for Super 2 eligibility for a fourth year of arbitration, if that is an issue in the new labor agreement.
“I think he’s kind of shown to everybody he’s ready,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s conquered every level.
“I think it was totally the right decision by us coming out of spring training, let him go play some Triple-A baseball, he had never done that. And with the offseason, last year, of not getting to play (and) get game reps (as the minor-league season was canceled due to the pandemic), it was a smart thing to do.
“To his credit, he’s made the most of it. He’s kind of, in fairness, forced our hand. He has shown that he’s ready to be here and help us win.”
Franco — the first to play in the majors with a 2001 birthday — certainly has the talent to do so: A switch hitter with a discerning eye, a high contact rate and power; a smooth defender who is a natural shortstop but has learned third and second base; an aggressive baserunner; a constant source of enthusiasm and positive vibes.
“I think one word that would describe him is just energy,” said infielder Taylor Walls, a teammate at Durham and now again in Tampa Bay. “The passion he brings to the game. Every game, he’s out there, whether it’s warmups, hitting in the cage, he’s always excited, having fun.
“You can just tell how joyful he is whenever he gets to be around this game. Being a teammate of his, that just rubs off on every guy around him. I’m excited for him. Well deserved. It’s about time that he’s here now. I think everybody here is excited to see him play.”
Franco has big aspirations for himself.
Though he doesn’t compare himself to other players, he is fine with others listing Toronto rising star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and to Cleveland standout Jose Ramirez, who is from the same hometown, as comps.
Franco introduced another name to the mix Tuesday, sharing that he is wearing No. 5 in honor of fellow Dominican Albert Pujols, who is closing out a likely Hall of Fame career. Franco would like to follow in his footsteps.
“I want to give 100 percent of what I’ve got,” Franco said. “Just continue with the work that I’ve been doing and hope that turns me into a superstar.”
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