He was the player ranked as the best prospect in baseball for quite a while. When he finally graduated and moved off the prospects lists, O’s prospect Adley Rutschman moved up from No. 2 to No. 1.
But Wander Franco was there first.
And Franco got to the majors first, and this week comes another first. The longest and richest contract ever awarded a player with less than one year of big league service time. The Tampa Bay Rays, per several reports, have come to terms with their 20-year-old switch-hitting shortstop on an 11-year deal worth a guaranteed $182 million. The club will hold a team option for a 12th season and the deal could max out at $223 million. That is an average annual value of $16.5 million through 11 years and $18.6 million through 12.
At a time when players are getting $300 million deals with some perhaps headed for $400 million-plus, the Rays may prove to be very smart and actually save a few dollars over the length of this deal. Well, if Franco plays great for them for a real long time, then perhaps yes.
Was Franco smart as well to cash in after just 70 big league games and guarantee himself $182 million? Will it later be proven he left money on the table? Perhaps, but he just set up himself and his family for life, and now a devastating injury or disappointing performance won’t keep him from an enormous deal and massive wealth.
If the deal gets completed as expected, the Rays will have signed Franco for three pre-arbitration years, three years of arbitration and five years of free agency and potentially six if the 12th-year option gets picked up.
A key element of the deal could be the lack of a no-trade clause. It gives the Rays protection in the ability to make a deal later if, for whatever reason, the contract becomes a drag on their franchise. Or if the team goes through a losing stretch and doesn’t contend.
This deal is also the latest example of the importance of the international amateur market. Franco was signed for $3.825 million at age 16, and anytime a young international amateur gets millions so young, a segment of fans will question it. But here is an example of how that market can work big for a team. He was signed in 2017, in the majors in 2020 and now under contract for many years heading into 2021. He won’t even turn 21 until March 1.
The previous longest deal for a player with less than a year of service time was when Atlanta extended Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2019 for eight years at $100 million. The previous most expensive deal handed out by the Rays was $100 million to Evan Longoria.
Franco finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting after batting .288/.347/.463 and producing 3.5 Wins Above Replacement over 70 games last summer. When he was the No. 1 prospect in the game, MLBPipeline.com put an 80 grade on his hit tool (yes, the highest score), a 60 on his power, 55 on speed, 55 for arm and 50 for fielding.
By comparison - even though he is a catcher and not a shortstop, so it’s not apples to apples here - MLBPipeline.com puts a 60 grade on Rutschman’s hit tool, with a 65 for power, 30 for speed, 60 for arm and 65 for fielding. While Franco has no below-average tool grade and Rutschman does, Rutschman also has four tools graded 60 or better to two for Franco.
It’s all impressive for Rutschman, and O’s fans may speculate about whether the club will look to sign him long-term before he has played a year’s worth of service time for the Orioles. A year from now the O’s could be in a position similar to where the Rays are now with Franco.
You would have to think signing a catcher for 11 or 12 years is riskier than making that kind of deal with a shortstop. The Franco deal, for me, is not a future framework for Rutschman, but if the low-revenue Rays can extend that much for a big-time talent, the Orioles certainly could at some point down the road.