Franco headlines int'l crop as showcase season underway

26 Sep 2016 Jesse Sánchez MLB.com
Wander Samuel Franco Wander Samuel Franco Latin Amateur League

Wander Samuel Franco began the 60-yard sprint down the first-base line at Estadio Quisqueya and toward his big league dream early Tuesday morning with a quick first step.

The 15-year-old's hands chopped through the air at his side. His cleats crunched the infield dirt beneath him and the brutal sun beat down from above. Scouts with big floppy hats and long-sleeved shirts with stopwatches waited for him at the finish line in the outfield grass.

The switch-hitting shortstop with superb hands, a smooth swing and a long list of professional ballplayers in his family is arguably the top international prospect in the 2017-18 class.

Now, the race to sign Franco when he becomes eligible next summer has shifted to the next gear.

Welcome to showcase season across Latin America, the time of the year when players such as Franco show off all of their skills in front of a large group scouts in a single setting in the hopes of landing a big league deal.

"I feel very fortunate to be in this position and I'm going to keep working hard," Franco said in Spanish. "I know I can get better and I'm not satisfied. My goal is to make it to the Major Leagues."

The teenager has speed -- a 6.8-second 60-yard run -- and baseball history on his side. Franco is the nephew of Tigers shortstop Erick Aybar. His oldest brother, Wander Javier Franco, 21, is a Minor Leaguer for Kansas City, and his second-oldest brother, Wander Alexander Franco, 19, is a Minor Leaguer in the Houston organization. Franco's father, also named Wander, also played professionally.

"You have to really nit-pick at his game to find flaws," said one National League team's international director of Franco. "Maybe he ends up at second base because of his arm? Maybe his lower body could be better? He's legit and there are a lot of reasons to like him. I can see why he would be on the top of the class."

Franco's soft hands have been compared to Omar Vizquel's and Ozzie Smith's, but some critics question the teen's technique and approach on routine plays that don't require all of the flash.

There's also the understanding that Franco is just 15, meaning he will improve once he enters a team's academy after he signs next summer, and every team would sign him if it could.

"God reached down and touched those hands," one American League team's international director said. "Guys with hands like that usually end up in the big leagues. If somebody tells you that they signed Vizquel or Ozzie because they thought they were going to hit in the big leagues, well, that's just revisionist history."

Showcase season began in earnest Monday morning with close to 100 players and almost as many scouts at Julio De Los Santos Basora's JDB Baseball Showcase at the old St. Louis Cardinals complex in the northern outskirts of Santo Domingo. Refurbished and painted blue and gray, the facility, now home to Mejia & Neno Baseball Academy, served as the backdrop.

It was Basora's voice that echoed throughout the field, first via a microphone as he announced players before the 60-yard dash and later through a bullhorn as he introduced each player before defensive drills and batting practice.

Scouts for the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams expected to be aggressive during the next international signing period, were perched near home plate. The Padres and Braves, who won't be able to sign players for more than $300,000 during the next two periods after blowing past their pool limits, watched from behind first base for players who might fall into their range.

What's certain is that the landscape continues to change. The Braves and Padres are two of 11 teams -- a list that includes the A's, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Reds and Royals -- that will not be able to sign international prospects for more than $300,000 during the next international signing period because they are in the maximum penalty. The Angels, D-backs and Rays -- like the Red Sox and the Yankees -- will no longer be limited to signing players for $300,000 or less, so they could be busy on the international front in 2017.

But while all eyes were on the prospects, some scouts pondered how the new Collective Bargaining Agreement -- the old one is set to expire Dec. 1 -- will impact their teams, and if a worldwide draft is coming. Some evaluators also thought about the steady stream of Cuban talent on the island and what the rules will be when those players are declared free agents next year.

Ultimately, it's an international scout's job to track prospects, which explains why they sped 25 miles down a nearby highway immediately after the JDB event for a smaller showcase for Franco, Cuban outfielder Dairon Blanco and Cuban pitcher Carlos Juan Viera in San Cristobal.

Blanco was clocked between 6.22 seconds and 6.38 seconds in the 60-yard dash, while Viera showed good command and a fastball in the 92-94 mph range. Franco peppered line drives from the left side of the plate and hit home runs from the right side.

"This is it where it all begins," said former big league scout Rudy Santin, who represents Blanco, Franco and Viera. "People start to look to see who has the best tools and who is separating themselves and making strides. This is one of the best years I've seen in the last five years because of strong guys in center field and good kids at shortstop."

Tuesday morning marked the beginning of the International Prospect League's international three-day showcase for 40 of top players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia and Panama at Estadio Quisqueya. Franco was among the first prospects to run the 60-yard dash, but he spent most of the afternoon in the clubhouse when the event was postponed after batting practice and fielding because of rain.

Play resumed Wednesday morning with games. The event concludes Thursday.

"This is an event that's growing, and we want to spread it across all countries in Latin America," said Amauris Nina, president of the International Prospect League. "We have had a lot of success at IPL, and we are focused on bringing the best players from several countries here so the scouts can see them and sign them."

The showcases continue Friday with Dominican Prospect League (DPL) event for shortstops and another JDB workout. The DPL, which has already started its one-game-per-week schedule, will hold a four-day event at the end of the month.

"Overall, I think this is the second-best class that I have seen after the 2015 class, a class that had guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Jhailyn Ortiz and Wander Javier, a group that signed for about $46 million that year," said Ulises Cabrera, co-founder of the DPL. "There's pretty good shortstop depth across the board and some really good outfielders that are out there. Teams are going to be interested in the talent across the board at all player levels, whether that's a $300,000 guy or a top of the Draft board type of player."

The busy showcase season continues with Major League Baseball's Amateur Prospect League showcase for Dominican teens on Oct. 25-27, and an event in Monterrey, Mexico, that starts Nov. 2.

Astin Jacobo, a prominent trainer in the Dominican Republic and son of former big league scout Astin Jacobo Sr., will launch the 10-team Latin American League next week that runs through February.

"In the future, when you see showcases like we have seen this week, the kids will come in with at least 100 at-bats, and that's a lot better for everyone evaluating," Jacobo said. "It means more Major Leaguers and better ballplayers in the future, because it's a better system. It's all happening right now. It's a good time for baseball here."

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