Wander Franco 2021 Opening Day: Pipeline Inbox (www.mlb.com)

Do you wonder about Wander? Just wondering.
Maybe you’d really love to go see him play. I guess we’d call that, “Wanderlust.”
We all love No. 1 prospect Wander Franco of the Rays and rarely get tired of talking about him. That’s a big reason why we’re kicking off this

Do you wonder about Wander? Just wondering.

Maybe you’d really love to go see him play. I guess we’d call that, “Wanderlust.”

We all love

Wander Franco of the Rays and rarely get tired of talking about him. That’s a big reason why we’re kicking off this week’s Inbox with a pair of queries about the teenaged phenom.

We examined both of these questions in this week’s Pipeline Podcast, so take a listen. In a nutshell, we don’t see the Rays calling Franco up for Opening Day in 2021. Yes, he was on the postseason taxi squad, but let’s keep in mind that he’s yet to play a game above A-ball. Vlad Jr., if you recall, made stops in Double-A and Triple-A (91 games at the two levels combined in ’18) before getting called up after a couple of weeks in the ’19 season. So if Franco is really going to follow Guerrero’s path, he’d spend a full year at the upper levels of the system and then come up early in ’22. Is he good enough to get up sooner? He could be, and the time he’s spending in winter ball now will help, but getting him some time in Double-A and Triple-A would be a good idea, and not just financially.

That also could allow them to let Franco play another position for a while. He’s yet to play anywhere but shortstop, and he’s solid there. But as is pointed out on the Podcast, Willy Adames is much better. So then it becomes a matter of a move to second or third. Third might make the most sense given that’s where the opportunity might be, but it could depend on what the Rays’ makeup is like when Franco is deemed ready. He likely would be a better defender than Lowe at second, and I could see a scenario where that’s where he plays and Lowe moves around in an everyday super-utility type role.

The Dominican Winter League is definitely a tough circuit to figure out. On the one hand, you have premium young prospects like Franco and Julio Rodriguez (playing on the same team!). On the other hand, you have a good amount of, “That guy is still playing baseball?” participants (I’m looking at you, Junior Lake).

The end result, then, is a pretty high level of competition. Sometimes the young players haven’t played at an advanced level yet, like Franco and Rodriguez mentioned above, but they can use this as a springboard there and they can handle it. Combine that with some of the veterans, who may have even played in the big leagues once upon a time, and you have a lot of players who know what they’re doing. I didn’t do a scientific poll on this, but one executive I asked put the talent level somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A. And that sounds about right to me, another reason why a phenom like Franco could use the experience to speed up his path to the big leagues.

I’m answering this question even though Cory shortened my name. If he knew me, he’d know only people who have known me for more than 30 years are allowed to do that. Anyway…

Back in September, Jim Callis wrote a story about most improved farm systems, so I’m going to start with that group. Given your parameters in terms of not looking, or a team poised to become the top farm system overall, I’m going to look at systems not currently in the top 10 of our most recent rankings who could jump into the upper third in the future. From Jim’s story, that includes the Giants, currently No. 13 in the rankings. More than half of their top 30 joined the organization, via the Draft, international signings and trades, since the start of the 2019 season. Much of the talent in the system, most notably Marco Luciano and Alexander Canario, is still pretty far away, so this system has the chance to have a slow build towards the top.

The Indians are kind of in the same boat, with a lot of super-young talent a few years away. They have five teenagers and four 20-year-olds in their top 12 alone. There’s definitely an up arrow here and as those prospects start moving up the system, expect to see more of them in our Top 100 with the Indians moving up the rankings.

The last team I’ll throw out there as sort of a sleeper pick is the Pirates. They’re currently at No. 16 and it might not seem like they’re as strong as they were, when they were regularly in our top 10, especially when you consider that Ke’Bryan Hayes will graduate next year and top prospect Nick Gonzales, their first-rounder from this year’s Draft, should move pretty quickly. But the Pirates have had some solid drafts the last two years, with young players like Quinn Priester likely to move into Top 100 status. They’ve added some very young and intriguing talent via trades, too — the Starling Marte deal in particular, I think, is going to look very good for Pittsburgh in the future.

There absolutely is, though before this year, I would’ve thought he was a couple of years away. No. 7 prospect Rafael Marchan was the top position player at the Phillies’ alternate site, a continuation of standing out during Spring Training. Though he hadn’t played a game above A-ball heading into the year, he impressed enough to get called up to the big leagues at age 21 when J.T. Realmuto got hurt. It was only a three-game stint, but he certainly didn’t make a bad first impression by going 4-for-8 with a homer during that time.

Clearly, his timetable has accelerated. Is he ready to make the leap full-time to perhaps share catching chores with Andrew Knapp? We’ll have to wait and see on that and if the Phillies try to bring in a more established backstop, assuming Realmuto signs elsewhere. But my gut tells me Marchan will be ready, at least defensively, to be a big leaguer in 2021 if needed.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly MLB Pipeline Podcast.

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