Fantasy baseball: Wonder about Wander no longer

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A few days before the Seattle Mariners promoted hyped outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic to the major leagues in mid-May, fantasy baseball managers everywhere acted quickly and gleefully to add him to their many teams, confident he would be a considerable difference-maker this season. In the short-term, Kelenic made quite the difference, but in a negative way as he hit a frustrating .096 over 92 plate appearances and very soon winding up on the most-dropped list. Now, almost unthinkably from a month ago, he hits for Triple-A Tacoma.

Tampa Bay Rays infield prospect Wander Franco, on his way to the majors this week, should be different of course, but we thought that about Kelenic, too. In fact, I still think Kelenic is going to be great. Clearly, though, for today at least, his value “in the big picture” is far worse in the fantasy world than it was a mere month ago, before he struggled in the big leagues. Will Franco suffer the same fate? After all, he is just 20 years old. Mike Trout, then 19, hit only .220 in his initial foray in the majors, so you should know there are never any guarantees.

Put simply, like a new car bought and driven off the lot, every prospect’s fantasy value changes as soon as they debut in the major leagues and, in most cases, the value goes down. As with cars, this is an unfortunate fact. Franco has the lofty designation of being the No. 1 prospect in the sport and therefore the expectations are that he will hit considerably better than .096 or .220. Again, one never knows for sure. The struggles of one, two or even a hundred prospects should not portend potential issues for the next ones. Then again, they oddly seem to do exactly that.

Wander Franco should be rostered in every fantasy league across the land, just in case he is indeed the generational talent that scouts and so many others expect him to be. Will he produce better fantasy numbers than veterans such as Cincinnati Reds OF Jesse Winker or Chicago White Sox RHP Lucas Giolito for the rest of this season? Big shrug. Nobody knows. It’s a good thing nobody knows, too, or playing the games out would be a lot less fun.

ESPN colleague AJ Mass indeed aggressively ranked Franco in his top 50 for the rest of the season in ESPN standard points formats, ahead of both Winker and Giolito, as well as Nolan Arenado and Walker Buehler, which is bold — and may very well be absolutely correct. Or it may not be. We all covet the allure of the prospect that has never failed at any level, dreaming of positive, difference-making statistics that carry us to championships. However, for each Aaron Judge and Jacob deGrom, there are myriad others that struggle.

Just like AJ, I choose to be positive. Franco sure seems different and so much more special than everyone else, with special hand speed and plate discipline. He is the best prospect in the land and nobody else (including Kelenic) is even close. I can get on board with that. I can also get on board with a fantasy manager actually trading Franco, before he debuts on Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox, for established talent such as Winker and Giolito and so many others. It is a major guessing game. Few can even conceptualize Franco struggling as Kelenic did, but this is baseball and for all we know Winker may have a 2-for-20 stretch looming as well.

In terms of value, I think both that Franco ranking in the overall top 50 is wise and that it is a similarly wise time to throw the kid’s name out there in trade talks and see what occurs. These thoughts are not mutually exclusive. Both scenarios are valid. Value is whatever one deems it to be, even if it seems nonsensical to the rest of us. Someone may offer you the injured Trout for Franco right now, since Trout may not play for another month. Someone else may “settle” for Kelenic and New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz for Franco. That may be fair as well. We may know in a month, or perhaps in a mere matter of days. The value completely alters as soon as the kid plays in the majors.

As I am sure the majority knows by now, Franco is a switch-hitting shortstop with power, speed and plate discipline, and he should be special. He certainly was for Triple-A Durham, hitting .315 with seven home runs and 24 extra-base hits in 39 games. He was not an efficient base stealer, though, stealing only five bases in nine attempts, and was merely 21-for-48 in his theft attempts over 214 minor league games and 945 PA.

He hit .332 with a .933 OPS in the minors. It seems obvious Franco will hit with the Rays, but expecting a .300 batting average is too optimistic. A mere 14 qualified players are hitting .300 right now! It is also a bit wild to expect 20 home runs the rest of the way, or relevant SB impact. Oh, the lure of the unknown can be electrifying, though!

The Rays lost all four games at Seattle this past weekend to help trigger the promotion, as if this was some fault of middle infielders Joey Wendle or Taylor Walls. It was not. Stuff happens in a long season and good teams will lose to average ones. Still, everyone agrees that Franco is ready for the majors and he’s an upgrade at shortstop from those fellows. Outfielders Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena are the club’s big hitters and Franco could initially bat ahead of them in the order, making him particularly intriguing statistically. I would activate Franco in weekly leagues but, as always, it depends on context and whom one benches to do so. I would not sit Winker — hitting .341 with 17 home runs — in order to play Franco, for example.

Regardless, Franco’s debut is very exciting for fantasy baseball, and I cannot wait to watch him this week. I admit it would be rather difficult to trade him in any fantasy league, but we must prepare fantasy managers for all outcomes. Kelenic struggled. Big-league pitching is not like Triple-A pitching. Boston’s Eduardo Rodriguez and Garrett Richards, scheduled to pitch in Franco’s initial games, are hardly on their way to earning Cy Young votes, but they are both experienced major-league hurlers, and Franco is just 20.

Value is a funny thing, because it changes all the time and it surely will in this case, too. Which way will it change? Be positive, but prepare for anything, fantasy managers!

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