How good is Wander Franco? Fans in Durham are talking about him as if he’s already gone.
“That’s where the grand slam landed.”
“Remember his four-hit night? The impossible plays in the field? The car? The jersey? The excitement? Those were the days, weren’t they?”
The relationships between fans and their teams are often described as love affairs, but when your minor league team hosts a sure major leaguer, it’s more like a summer fling — intense and fleeting, a few quick weeks that leave you with memories that seem to get better with age.
Make no mistake, Wander Franco has no business playing in Durham. He has the talent and polish to be playing in Tampa right now. Anything that might have been left for him to prove was addressed in the season’s first couple weeks.
Franco’s reputation didn’t just precede him to Durham, it kicked down the door and rolled out the red carpet. He was signed as a Dominican teenager for nearly $4 million in 2018, then hit for the cycle in his first month as a pro. He finished the year as the Appalachian League player of the year as a 17-year-old.
In 2019, he hit .327 with an .885 OPS and 18 steals for two Class A teams. He was also the youngest player in the Major League Baseball Futures Game in Cleveland during the All-Star Break.
He had a hit, with a 107.9 mph exit velocity, in the game, then said afterward, “If I keep doing what I’m doing, maybe next year I’ll find myself in the big leagues.”
According to schedule, his brief fling with Durham should have been last summer’s whirlwind romance before he got called up and likely headed to the World Series with the Rays.
The pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the minor league season pushed all of that back, although he very nearly ended up in the same place — the Rays, by all accounts, gave serious consideration to calling him up from the alternate site for the postseason run.
So instead, Franco finds himself parking his Rolls-Royce Cullinan — a luxury SUV with a sticker price of $330,000 — not in the covered space of a condominium on some Florida golf course community but rather on the gravel players parking lot under a bridge in Durham.
Fancy car and open talk of his schedule for making the bigs aside, Franco appears to be fitting right in with the Bulls. For a guy who has a brother Wander and another brother Wander (only the three middle names are different), being one of the guys must come naturally.
He wears the tacky “special” jerseys — one of which, patterned after the jackets in the movie “Bull Durham,” sold for more than $1,800, shattering the previous Bulls jersey auction record by more than $800, on the same day a Franco baseball card sold for $198,000 in a separate auction — on promotional nights. When teammate Brett Sullivan produced a walk-off hit, Franco carried the cooler full of water to dump on him in the on-field celebration, then high-fived teammates with the empty cooler.
He’s also working on his game. Entering the season, he’d played all 175 of his professional games at shortstop. He’s already started three games at second base and three at third in 17 games as a Bull. Despite his willingness to move around the infield, the Rays have already traded their incumbent shortstop — former Bull Willy Adames — to make room for Franco, although another Bull, Taylor Wall, got the immediate promotion to the bigs.
Still, it’s just a matter of time, and a short time at that. As he approaches game 20 with the Bulls, it’s worth noting that he’s never spent more than 61 games at any minor league level.
Franco has produced outstanding defensive plays at all three positions, but his glove will likely always be overshadowed by his bat. Franco had six multi-hit games in his first 11 outings as a Bull and finished the season’s second week with a .348 average and 1.056 OPS.
The Charlotte Knights seemed to find a way to pitch him, striking him out five straight games as Franco went 2 for 24, but he got the last laugh, tripling in two runs to help the Bulls rally from four runs down in the eighth inning to win the series finale.
It brought back memories of his Futures Game heroics two years ago when he was asked if baseball is ever hard for him. Sometimes, he answered, without seeming to mean it. He then added, “but at some point, yes, I think it will be.”
We’re still waiting.