Wander Franco Lands A Monster Deal

How good was phenom Wander Franco’s rookie season in 2021? So good that it actually compelled the Tampa Bay Rays to spend money. Just before Turkey Day, the team and Franco came to an agreement on a massive deal that could reach 12 years and $223 million.

Since this is baseball, this isn’t one of those NFL deals in which someone lands a comma-laden top number but, when you read the finer details, it turns out that a huge chunk of that money is a roster bonus due in four years that will never be paid off. Eleven years and $182 million of Franco’s deal is guaranteed, with the bulk of the rest coming from a $25 million club option for 2033 and a little more in incentives that kick in for finishing the top five in the AL MVP voting starting in 2028.

This deal is the new all-time record for a player with less than a full year of service time; the previous no. 1 was Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s extension worth up to $100 million, an agreement that this one essentially laps. Fernando Tatis Jr.’s contract is a larger one at 14 years and $340 million, but he was also a player who had cleared two years of service time when he signed on the dotted line, giving him more financial leverage over the Padres.

Franco finished “only” third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, but this was largely due to the fact that voters give a heavy penalty to a great player with less playing time, something I have direct experience with. The winner, his teammate Randy Arozarena, bested him in WAR, 3.3 to 2.5, but he needed twice as many games to get that far above replacement level. There was little question Franco was ready, as he hit .313/.372/.583 in 40 games for Triple-A Durham. These weren’t flash Albuquerque or Las Vegas numbers either; ZiPS translated that performance as a .281/.328/.473 line, not all that different from the actual .288/.347/.463 line he put up for Tampa Bay.

In case it already wasn’t clear after years of him being the consensus best prospect in baseball, the ZiPS projection for Franco is also that of a young star.

ZiPS Projection – Wander Franco
2022 .282 .333 .464 500 78 141 28 9 15 67 38 8 120 4 3.9
2023 .289 .345 .497 481 79 139 29 10 17 70 40 9 132 4 4.6
2024 .292 .351 .510 486 82 142 30 11 18 73 43 8 137 4 5.0
2025 .292 .353 .523 486 84 142 30 11 20 76 45 8 140 4 5.2
2026 .291 .356 .532 481 84 140 29 12 21 77 48 8 144 5 5.5
2027 .291 .358 .533 478 85 139 29 12 21 78 49 8 145 5 5.5
2028 .287 .356 .531 463 82 133 28 11 21 75 49 7 144 4 5.2
2029 .287 .357 .530 449 80 129 27 11 20 73 48 7 144 3 5.0
2030 .286 .354 .532 434 76 124 25 11 20 71 45 6 143 2 4.7
2031 .281 .348 .520 417 71 117 23 10 19 66 42 6 138 1 4.1
2032 .274 .337 .497 398 65 109 21 10 16 60 38 5 129 0 3.3
2033 .273 .336 .479 363 58 99 19 7 14 52 34 4 124 -1 2.7

Obviously, the potential exists for him to hit higher numbers in his peak seasons; bottom-line projections are 50th-percentile projections and will naturally be much less volatile than what actually happens. But when I ran the 2022 projections for all the likely subjects, thanks to Acuña’s ACL injury, the only player that ZiPS projects to accumulate more WAR than Franco over the rest of their respective careers is Juan Soto.

The big question out there: is the contract fair to both parties? After all, one can make the argument that Franco may have earned much more by simply playing his way through baseball’s salary process and hitting free agency after the 2027 season.

To that question, I’m in the “yes” camp. The Rays have a great deal of financial leverage with Franco two seasons away from his first arbitration year, assuming that he would achieve Super Two status after the 2023 season at two years, 104 days of service time. But by the same token, I don’t expect the Rays to pay him as if he were a free agent, either. What I personally like to see is a contract that reflects the risks that both parties take in a long-term deal without being grossly weighted in one direction or the other. Call it actuarial fetishism, but a contract like Ozzie Albies‘ seven-year, $35 million contract offends me as an analyst in a way that this deal does not.

I’m not sure why I haven’t built this into the standard ZiPS model (I probably will after this ZiPS season is over), but I constructed a small simulation for how much Franco could make going year-to-year and then signing a mega-deal relative to what he will actually get. In the 50th-percentile projection, with near-minimum salaries in 2022 and ’23, arbitration projections, and free-agent contract projections, ZiPS estimates $297 million over the next 12 years. This is well above the $223 million he can max out at, but that’s not the whole story, either. The upside isn’t tremendously high, with the 90th-percentile projection going up to $360 million. Franco could figure out how to pitch like Jacob deGrom this offseason, and he’ll still get relatively paltry sums of money for the next few years; arbitration awards don’t scale up linearly for superstars. And the downside is significant. His 10th-percentile result ends up with him making less than $20 million over his career, and in 35% of the simulations, he falls short of $182 million. By comparison, at the time of their signings, Acuña falls short of his guaranteed deal only 17% of the time, and Albies does worse only 9% of the time. Another natural comparison is when the Rays signed Evan Longoria a week into his major league career to a contract worth a guaranteed $17.5 million over six years; ZiPS only had him doing worse than that contract in 11% of the simulations.

The future is a very uncertain thing, as demonstrated by the very weak 2021 seasons from Cody Bellinger and Gleyber Torres. Those young stars would probably be better off right now if they had signed $150 million contracts after their rookie campaigns. Since every Mets fan is born with a genetic catalog of tales of sadness and loss, ask someone in Queens their feelings about Gregg Jefferies, who put up an OPS over 1.000 as a 19-year-old for Double-A Tidewater and a .961 OPS in his first cup of coffee before settling into a respectable, but disappointing, 20-WAR career.

No matter what happens with Franco, he’s basically a fifth of the way to becoming a billionaire before the taxman gets involved. The Rays leveraged their position — as you expect people to do in salary negotiations — but not in a grotesque way. If I were an agent and Franco were my client, I’d raise no fuss about him taking this deal. He’s one of baseball’s bright young stars, one MLB would be wise to market around, and now he can afford an entourage worthy of his abilities. Thumbs up all around from me.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

Those triples projections are pretty nuts. Ten consecutive seasons of projected double digits.

2 years ago
Reply to  careagan

The career total of 125 looks like it’s about 50th since 1901, and in the top 30 since 1920. Would be the most since Jose Reyes got 131. Crazy to see those numbers in the current game.