Passan: How Wander Franco became MLB's next can't-miss kid

Rays phenom Wander Franco, who dropped out of school after the sixth grade to go pro, will soon join Acuna, Vlad Jr. and Tatis among MLB's new generation of superstars. And he just might be better than all of them. ESPN Illustration

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?"

They nodded.

"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." Wander Franco

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."