Wander Franco’s big league career spans just 70 games and 104 days, but Yancen Pujols of El Caribe, a news outlet in Franco’s native Dominican Republic, reports that the Rays have put forth what would be a record-setting contract offer to the 20-year-old shortstop (Twitter thread). Exact terms aren’t known, but Pujols indicates that the offer is at least ten years in length and would land somewhere in the $150-200MM range. That’d go well beyond the eight-year, $100MM contract Ronald Acuna Jr. signed in Atlanta — the current record for a player with under a year of Major League service time.
The Rays are among the many teams who regularly show interest in early-career extensions. That’s largely a necessity for them to retain homegrown stars, given the payroll restrictions ownership places on the front office. That said, while Tampa Bay has had some success in this regard in the past — Brandon Lowe, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Chris Archer all signed team-friendly extensions with under one year of MLB service time — the reported terms here would dwarf any contract ever handed out by the franchise, regardless of service time. (Longoria’s second extension — a six-year, $100MM pact — is the current franchise record.)
It’s easy to see why the Rays are so bullish on Franco’s long-term outlook. The consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball for two years prior to his debut, Franco burst onto the scene at 20 years of age and slashed .288/.347/.463 with seven home runs, 18 doubles, five triples and a pair of stolen bases through 308 plate appearances. In spite of that youth, Franco looked like he belonged almost immediately — at one point reaching base in 43 consecutive games. That mind-boggling stretch, which spanned from July 25 to Sept. 29, saw Franco post a combined .329/.398/.545 batting line with more walks (9.1%) than strikeouts (8.1%). Franco went on to finish third place in AL Rookie of the Year voting despite appearing in just 70 games.
The Rays waited until late June to call Franco to the big leagues, all but ensuring that he’d avoid Super Two status under the current iteration of the arbitration system (which could change, depending on ongoing labor negotiations). As things currently stand, Franco wouldn’t even be arbitration-eligible until after the 2024 season, and he wouldn’t reach the open market until the completion of the 2027 campaign. A contract of 10-plus years in length would buy out all of Franco’s arbitration seasons and lock in at least four would-be free-agent years — plus any additional option years that could potentially be tacked on.
On the one hand, it’ll be jarring for some to consider the possibility of guaranteeing such a weighty sum to a player with such minimal big league experience. On the other, fans need only look to San Diego to see what waiting until a couple years can do to the price tag on a player of this caliber. Fernando Tatis Jr., who also debuted at age 20 with similarly excellent results, didn’t sign an extension until he had two full years of service time in the books — at which point he secured a record 14-year, $340MM contract from the Friars. It’s hard to imagine the low-payroll Rays ever doling out a guarantee of the magnitude, so it’s understandable that they’d look to act earlier in Franco’s promising career.
Even if the two sides ultimately come to terms on something in this general neighborhood, Franco would figure to be years from seeing his salary spike. He’s currently set to make under $1MM in each of the next three seasons as a pre-arbitration player, and the contract structuring would likely reflect that reality — perhaps promising him a signing bonus and some low seven-figure salaries prior to his arb years before slowly ramping into the would-be free-agent portion of his deal. That would give the Rays cost certainty in the long-term while maintaining the type of early flexibility they still stand to enjoy from MLB’s present-day salary structure.
From Franco’s side of things, it’s a rather fascinating scenario to consider. It’s unfathomable for most of us to ever turn down an overture that would guarantee $150MM or more — particularly at such a young age. Then again, looking to the current free-agent climate in MLB, Franco can see both Carlos Correa and Corey Seager vying for contracts that guarantee them $300MM or more. Talk of a potential extension for 23-year-old Juan Soto, who has three-plus years of service, has elicited suggestions of $400MM or even $500MM.
Franco’s early debut puts him on that same type of earning trajectory — assuming he can indeed live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. He’d reach six full years of service time heading into his age-27 season, the same position in which Correa finds himself now (with nearly $27MM in career salaries already banked). Six years ago, talk of contracts in the $300-400MM range might have seemed far-fetched, but that’s no longer the case. In fact, six years ago, the largest contract ever given to a player with under a year of service time was Archer’s six-year, $25.5MM deal. Suffice it to say, what players consider attainable can change quite a bit in a span of six years.
Of course, forgoing an extension structure of this magnitude could prove overwhelmingly regrettable. Any player comes with the risk of major injury, and as touted as Franco was as a prospect, whether he’ll reach that sky-high ceiling remains to be seen. If he settles in as a quality regular but something less than a superstar, this type of offer may not present itself in future years. It’s also at least possible that current CBA talks impact his earning power for the worse; ownership has already proposed an age-based free agent threshold of 29.5 years (although that was an obvious nonstarter for the MLBPA due to exactly this type of player being harmed). If nothing else, it all makes for a fascinating thought exercise.
To be clear, there’s no indication an agreement is nigh. Quite the opposite, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times tweets that nothing appears imminent at this time. Pujols, meanwhile, reports that Franco’s camp is currently studying the offer and is expected to make a counteroffer at some point.
Talk of any major contract issued by the Rays will inevitably lead to some cynical remarks about how soon the player can expect to be traded, and cliche as they may be, such jabs are also rooted in historic precedent. It’s commonplace for the Rays to trade stars away once these early-career extensions feel less like bargains (e.g. Blake Snell, Archer, Longoria), but it’s also important to note that the Rays do seem well-positioned to make such a proposal. Lowe’s contract is the only guaranteed money on the books beyond the 2022 season, and by the time the 2025 campaign rolls around, Tampa Bay doesn’t have a single guaranteed dollar on the ledger.
It could nevertheless be difficult for Tampa Bay to ever commit a hefty eight-figure salary to a player on an annual basis, but if there’s one player for whom the Rays would try to make such an arrangement work, it’s likely Franco.