Why Wander Franco is worth every penny of his new $182 million deal with Tampa Bay Rays

24 Nov 2021 | 08:55

Wander Franco‘s 12-year contract extension with the Tampa Bay Rays that guarantees him $182 million and could pay a maximum of $223 million is shocking in only one regard: that the Rays would make that kind of financial outlay, even to a burgeoning superstar like Franco.

It is not just the largest contract in Rays history, blowing away the six-year, $100 million extension Evan Longoria signed after the 2012 season, but easily the largest ever given to a player with less than one year of service time, topping the eight-year, $100 million contract Ronald Acuna Jr. signed with the Atlanta Braves. If Franco receives the 12th-year option, it becomes the 24th $200 million contract in major league history.

This is a franchise that since in its inception in 1998 has given out a combined $348 million in free agency, according to Cot’s Contracts. Now the Rays are committing more than half that figure to just one player. It is a franchise-altering move and shows their belief that Franco will continue to build on his impressive rookie performance, when he hit .288/.347/.463 as a 20-year-old, including .338/.393/.541 over his final 33 games — part of a stretch in which he reached base in 43 consecutive games.

As successful as the Rays have been in recent seasons — 96 wins and the playoffs in 2019, a division title and trip to the World Series in 2020, a franchise-record 100 wins and another division title in 2021 — they’ve done it without a true superstar player. Their best position players in 2019 were Tommy Pham, Austin Meadows and Willy Adames, each worth 3.9 WAR. In 2020, it was Brandon Lowe. In 2021, it was Lowe (4.7 WAR) and Randy Arozarena (4.1 WAR). Lowe finished 10th on the MVP ballot, and Meadows and Mike Zunino each received one 10th-place vote, the only Rays players to factor in the voting.

Franco, however, projects to be a foundational piece, with one of the best pure hit tools to come along in a long time. He hit .331 in his minor league career, including .313 in 40 games in Triple-A to begin 2021 after skipping Double-A. After getting off to a slow start in the majors, the switch-hitter kicked into gear, showcasing his elite contact ability and line-drive power. The exit velocity isn’t elite just yet, but as he continues to mature and develop and learns to loft the ball on a more consistent basis, scouts expect the power numbers to climb.

He held his own at shortstop, showing good hands and a strong arm. The defensive runs saved stat loved his defense, crediting him with plus-6 in just 543 innings. Statcast’s outs above average metric was less positive, ranking him in the 13th percentile. At the minimum, he profiles as a Corey Seager-type shortstop, more hit over glove, but he’s athletic enough to keep improving on defense and the Rays’ mastery of positioning helps mask any lack of range.

You always want to be careful about projecting a player too far above his current level of play, but Franco just produced 3.5 WAR in 70 games, via Baseball-Reference. FanGraphs, with less value given to his defense, had him at 2.5 WAR. Either way, double that rate to 140 games and you have an All-Star player (5.0 WAR) or an MVP candidate (7.0 WAR). And that’s without even factoring in the likely improvement to come at the plate.

That’s why the Rays can do this deal with complete confidence that Franco won’t bust (assuming he stays healthy). It’s worth pointing out that the Rays didn’t really get much of a discount here, as the Braves did with the much-criticized Acuna contract, when Acuna clearly left money on the table. MLB Network ran a good comparison of Francisco Lindor‘s career and future earnings over the 12 seasons after his initial call-up season. Factoring in the money he’ll earn through 2027, Lindor will earn $256.7 million, so Franco comes not too much below that.

Of course, Lindor’s subpar (for him) performance with the New York Mets in 2021 could be viewed as an indicator that nothing is guaranteed in the long term, even for a player who stars at a young age. I would argue, however, that Franco has even more offensive upside than Lindor. In his age-20 season, Lindor was in the minor leagues while Franco posted a 129 OPS+ — a figure Lindor has reached just once in his career (132 in 2018). Franco is unlikely to match Lindor’s defense, but I think his total package of contributions will exceed Lindor’s in value, and Lindor has averaged 4.9 WAR per 650 plate appearances since 2016.

The Fernando Tatis Jr. contract with the San Diego Padres, worth $340 million over 13 years, is another comparison, with the main difference being that Tatis signed his after two full seasons of service time, so he has more free-agent years tacked on at the end of the deal. Tatis also had more proven power than Franco, although his risk profile is higher, given his injury history that existed even before his 2021 shoulder issues.

None of this guarantees Franco will remain with the Rays over the life of the contract — but it does make it less likely that they’ll have to trade him eventually, as they did with Longoria or David Price or Blake Snell. The key is what the Rays’ finances will look like down the road, as Franco’s salaries start escalating. That remains an unknown. The Rays remain locked into their lease at Tropicana Field through 2027. Proposals for a new ballpark in Tampa or St. Petersburg remain stalled. The Rays have yet to dismiss the idea of the two-city play, playing games in Montreal as well as in the Tampa Bay region. In other words, who knows where the Rays will be in 2028 or 2033.

For now, the Rays have Franco. They have a young, inexpensive team around him. All signs point to them remaining a force in the AL East for the foreseeable future.