Back in 2015, a young and painfully-thin third baseman was busily making an impression on those of us paying close attention to that year’s edition of the Lexington Legends.
Weighing somewhere around 160 pounds at the time, the 6’2” Wander Franco of the Kansas City Royals farm system was showing early signs of developing extra-base pop, but just how much power he would have was hard to tell. Here was a 20-year old prospect in his first season at full-season Class-A, acquitting himself well despite a slender frame and pitching decidedly more advanced than that which he had faced in his three previous seasons vs. rookie-league competition.
Signed as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2011 by the Royals, Franco started his pro career in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, batting .311 with 20 XBH in 66 games while swiping 13 bags. Also of note: Franco went down on strikes only 30 times in 235 at-bats.
The 2012 season found Franco in the Arizona League, where he batted .277 with 11 doubles, four triples and 23 RBI in 43 games. The Royals advanced him slowly in the chain, sending him to the Idaho Falls Chukars in 2014. Franco batted .323 there in 42 games, with 13 doubles, three triples and three homers.
In his promotion to Class-A with the Lexington Legends, Franco’s power began to manifest itself. At age 20, he swatted 30 doubles and ten homers, driving in 74 while posting a .268/.310/.403 slash in 512 plate appearances. While not especially impressive numbers, in and of themselves (102 wRC+, .134 ISO), they did suggest that Franco possessed modest game-time power, and his slight frame was certainly projectable. Whether or not he could put on good weight and gain strength was anyone’s guess.
Franco’s first run in High-A, in 2016, was a mixed bag overall. While he batted only .220 in 95 games, he also finished with 24 doubles and five homers. Considering he was young for the level (21 years old; 1.5 yrs younger than average age of Carolina League players), it wasn’t that concerning.
His follow-up with Wilmington in 2017, however, was disappointing. He did manage 31 XBH, but only four of those were homers. His slash of .279/.319/.376 (.695 OPS) was reflective of a somewhat more defensive approach at the plate; his 92 strikeouts in 516 PA were acceptable, but he still was drawing few walks (25). Meanwhile, his defense at third was slowly improving, becoming steady if not flashy.
Acquired by the Giants off waivers from the Royals, Franco was assigned to the San Jose Giants in the High-A California League. As of June 15th, he was leading the league in doubles (21), fourth in hits (76), and his slash was .291/.309/.391 (.699 OPS) in 62 games.
Franco has historically been a hands-first swinger, generating adequate bat speed with the ability to drive the ball deep into the gap, at times. There is a bit of a whip to his swing, at its best, but there are times when he demonstrates a hitch that robs him of what power he has. He is at his best when he gets his lower half involved, but while he makes consistent contact, his power numbers could jump substantially if he were able to add some muscle.
His walk and strikeout percentages are going backwards, quite badly (2.2% BB, 20.0% K), but he has grown to use the whole field (39.4% pull, 38.9% oppo) and while his line-drive percentage could certainly improve (22.4%), he is at least putting the ball in play consistently.
My impression of him with the Legends was that he had the potential to become an extra-base machine, even though he certainly doesn’t have the prototypical slugger’s build.
I do wonder how he would handle the next step up the ladder; Double-A is a crossroads, for so many prospects. I feel like his swing mechanics and bat-to-ball skills will allow him to succeed at higher levels, but while he may be able to maintain his average, his XBH totals could plummet in his first go-round with Double-A. He could get a chance to prove himself at Richmond before the year is over, and would likely start there in 2019.
Franco is under the radar, to be sure, but there is enough here to suggest that he will continue to advance. Another ten pounds of good weight, just a little bit of added upper-body strength, could make the difference between stalling at Double-A and breaking into the big leagues.
He has 2017 2nd-round pick (and 10th-ranked Giants prospect) Jacob Gonzalez behind him in Augusta, but Gonzalez is still nineteen and there’s no reason for the Giants to push him too quickly. If it all comes together for Franco, his ceiling could be as a gap hitter with above-average contact rates and potential in a table-setting role. He has work to do if he’s going to reach that ceiling, but the potential is there.