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Wander Franco, MLB’s top prospect, looks ready for the majors; but when will he make Rays debut?

On Friday, CBS Sports will publish this year’s list of the top 50 minor-league prospects. Spoiler alert (and not that it should come as a surprise to anyone): Wander Franco, the Tampa Bay Rays wunderkind shortstop, will hold the top spot for a second consecutive year. 

Franco, undoubtedly inspired by the honor, celebrated on Wednesday by hitting an impressive home run in a spring training contest versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. Behold:

A reasonable response to all of Franco’s accolades and hype is to ask when he’ll be gracing a big-league field. The answer — or, at least, the expectation based on all the information available to us today — is probably not until June.

The unfortunate reality of this era of baseball is that teams almost always manipulate their top prospects’ service time as a means of: 1) extending their team control (effectively giving teams seven cost-controlled seasons instead of six); and 2) suppressing their earning potential (by preventing them from reaching Super Two status, or triggering a fourth arbitration-eligible season). It’s a nasty, unfair, and unacceptable part of modern management, albeit one without easy rectification — relying on teams to operate in good faith toward their players when there’s money to be saved is too much to ask, even when long-term relationships, fan interest, and wins are at stake.

Franco is unlikely to be an exception, in part because the Rays have ample cover for when they send him to the farm: he just turned 20 years old; he’s played in all of 52 games above A-ball, including none at Double- or Triple-A; and the quality of his play at the alternate site last summer (and seemingly this April) cannot be discerned by third parties as easily as, say, if he spent the summer hectoring minor-league pitching under normal circumstances. 

Some of that explanation is reasonable, some is not. The age-related concern, for instance, is bunk. One talent evaluator told CBS Sports that they believed Franco could already hold his own in the majors as of September 2019. Additionally, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto (among others) have proven that talent trumps birthdate. Indeed, this is, in a sense, the age of early-20-somethings making an impact in the majors.

Still, the Rays have other cards they can play that should protect them against a potential grievance, including their big-league roster. Tampa Bay already has a capable double-play combination in Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe. The Rays were open to moving Adames over the winter, and will likely explore trades for Lowe sooner than later. For as long as those two remain in place, the only spot the Rays could conceivably play Franco is at third, which is currently staffed by a combination of Joey Wendle, Mikke Brosseau, and Yandy Diaz. That isn’t a trio that should block a phenom, but the Rays can point to their recent World Series berth as evidence it’s a workable setup.

The Rays’ minor-league depth also allows them the opportunity to obscure service-time gaming. If one of their infielders suffers an injury, they could bypass Franco to call upon Taylor Walls (who could well be Tampa Bay’s long-term shortstop), Kevin Padlo, or Vidal Brujan. The advantage those three have over Franco is that they’re already on the 40-player roster, and therefore they wouldn’t require a corresponding move.

If all of this makes it sound like the system is rigged against Franco … well, it is. Young players, especially those who signed as international free agents, are almost always impacted the most by baseball’s anti-labor practices. Franco, whose talent could make him an All-Star and millionaire many times over, happens to be one of the lucky ones — even if those same blessings mean that he might debut months later than merit dictates.

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