Wander Samuel Franco, nephew of Erick Aybar, heads group of foreign phenoms
By Jesse Sanchez
The baseball bloodlines run deep with international prospect Wander Franco. His idol, Padres shortstop Erick Aybar, is also his uncle.
"I've learned a lot from him, not only baseball and fielding, but also my approach to the game and how to behave on and off the field," Franco, 16, said. "He has always been a hero to me and I want to follow in his footsteps."
Franco is on his way to fulfilling his own big league dream. The switch-hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic has been considered the top prospect for the international class of 2017 for several months, and now it's official. Wander Samuel Franco is ranked No. 1 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 30 International Prospects list for 2017. He's expected to sign with an MLB organization when the international signing period begins on July 2.
"The day Wander signs is going to be a day he never forgets," said Aybar, who signed with the Angels for $100,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2002. "What I like about him is that he loves the game and he plays the game hard. You can tell he has talent and wants to do the right thing. He just needs to take care of himself and remember that signing is just the first step."
This year's Top 30 International Prospects list includes 14 players from Venezuela, 12 from the Dominican Republic, one from the Bahamas, one from Brazil and two from Mexico. The positions break down like this: 11 outfielders, 15 infielders, two pitchers and two catchers.
The best athletes at premium positions are the most appealing to international scouts. Six of the top 12 play shortstop. There are only two pitching prospects on the list, because it's hard for international scouts to predict which pitchers will break out when most throw between 86 and 90 mph. Two catchers in the top 10 is rare and speaks to the unique talent available in this year's class.
As for Franco, scouts like his polished approach on both sides of the ball and his overall defensive actions. On offense, the teenager has shown the ability to make good contact from both sides of the plate. A flashy player, Franco has the type of speed that could land him at the top of the batting order.
The Rays are the favorite to ink Franco for a signing bonus expected to be near $4 million. When he signs, he'll join his oldest brother, Wander Javier Franco, a Minor Leaguer for the Royals, and his second-oldest brother, Wander Alexander Franco, a Minor Leaguer in the Astros' organization, in the professional ranks. Franco is represented by former Major League scout and front office executive Rudy Santin.
"I have talked with [Wander Samuel] several times, and we worked out in the batting cage and the stadium," Aybar said. "He'll get a good bonus, and I reminded him that money is not everything and that he'll make money in the big leagues. The big leagues is where you want to be and it's the only thing that matters."
More than 600 prospects signed during the international signing period that started July 2, 2016, and that number could increase during the upcoming 2017-18 period because there are more than 4,000 who have registered to sign.
In addition to prospects from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and the Bahamas, there are also prospects from places like Aruba, Colombia, Germany, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, South Korea and Taiwan eligible to sign during the upcoming period. Additionally, this year's class features teens from Belarus, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Czech Republic, Curacao, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.
Who's signing whom?
Ranked a close second behind Franco on the list is catcher Daniel Flores of Venezuela. Flores, an elite defender with raw power, is a threat from both sides of the plate and has been linked to the Red Sox. Jelfry Marte of the Dominican Republic, ranked No. 3, is a good runner with quick hands, a strong arm and the defensive tools that could make him an everyday shortstop in the big leagues in the future with the Twins, the team that is the favorite to sign him.
Rounding out the top five is Venezuelan outfielder Everson Pereira, a plus defender and a plus runner who has all of the tools to stay in center field as he develops. That's good news for Yankees, who have been linked to him. Coming in at No. 5 is Eric Pardinho, the new face of baseball in Brazil. The right-handed pitcher with World Baseball Classic experience and an advanced approach on the mound is expected to sign with the Blue Jays.
Cuban outfield prospect Luis Robert, 19, ranked no. 1 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 30 International Prospects list for the 2016-2017 signing period, was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball on April 20 and will become eligible to sign with a Major League team on May 20.
Should Robert not sign before June 15, the end of the current international signing period for which he qualifies, the teenager will eligible to sign during the next signing period that starts July 2 and move to the top of the Top 30 International Prospects list for 2017-2018.
Per the current signing rules, Cuban players age 23 or older with at least five years of playing experience in Serie Nacional are not subject to the international signing guidelines. Robert does not qualify for the exemption because of his age and his experience.
International signing rules
There are specific guidelines for signing prospects like Franco: An international player is eligible to sign with a Major League team between July 2 through June 15 of the next year if he is 17 or will turn 17 by the end of the first season of his contract.
The rules for signing international prospects are changing for the signing period that starts July 2. According to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, every team will get at least $4.75 million to spend on international prospects. Any team receiving a Competitive Balance Round A pick in the Draft will get $5.25 million in international bonus pool money. Additionally, teams receiving a Competitive Balance Round B pick will have $5.75 million to spend.
A club can trade as much of its international pool money as it would like, but there is a limit -- 75 percent of a team's initial pool -- to how much one team can acquire.
When the international signing period starts, the A's, Braves, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds and Royals will not be able to sign international prospects for more than $300,000 because they are in the maximum penalty. They will still be able to use all of their pool money. The Angels, Blue Jays, D-backs, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees will be out of the penalty and no longer be limited to signing players for $300,000 or less come July 2.
The best of the rest
In addition to the top 30 players, there are several talented international prospects that will sign during the upcoming period. Many of those players could make it to the Major Leagues one day.
Here are more names to watch during the international signing period that starts July 2.
Nelfry Abreu, INF, Dominican Republic
Carlos Aguiar, OF, Dominican Republic
Luabert Arias, RHP, Venezuela
Enyelberth Ascanio, C, Venezuela
Jorge Barrosa, OF, Venezuela
Adolfo Bauza, RHP, Venezuela
Carlos Bolivar, OF, Venezuela
Mauro Bonifacio, OF, Dominican Republic
Diowill Burgos, OF, Dominican Republic
Carlos Camarillo, OF, Venezuela
Marshall Cantillo, OF, Colombia
Yimi Carty, RHP, Dominican Republic
Jaico Christian, OF, Dominican Republic
Keyler Colina, C, Venezuela
Jose Colon, INF, Dominican Republic
Sterling Consuegra, OF, Dominican Republic
Jimmy Cortabarrio, OF, Venezuela
Adanson Cruz, OF, Dominican Republic
Fadriel Cruz, SS, Dominican Republic
Luis Curvelo, RHP, Venezuela
Jarryd Dale, INF, Australia
Luis De Avila, LHP, Colombia
Randy De La Cruz, OF, Dominican Republic
Darlyn Del Villar, SS, Dominican Republic
Trent Devaux, OF/INF, Bahamas
Anthony Garcia, OF, Dominican Republic
Gabriel Gil, C, Venezuela
Orcelis Gomez, RHP, Venezuela
Ronald Govea, RHP, Venezuela
Arturo Guerrero, OF, Dominican Republic
Sergio Gutierrez, C, Venezuela
Leonardo Jimenez, SS, Panama
D'Shawn Knowles, OF, Bahamas
D'Vaughn Knowles, OF, Bahamas
Jairo Lopez, RHP, Venezuela
David Marcado, RHP, Venezuela
Pedro Martinez Jr., INF, Dominican Republic
Alejandro Melean, RHP, Venezuela
Andres Melendez, C, Venezuela
Sander Mora, SS, Venezuela
Keithron Moss, OF, Bahamas
Victor Munoz, RHP, Dominican Republic
Luis Navaro, RHP, Mexico
Felix Neguey, SS, Dominican Republic
Jesus Orecchia, C, Venezuela
Luis Paez, INF, Dominican Republic
Fabian Pertuz, INF, Colombia
Alexfri Planez, OF, Venezuela
Alberto Rodriguez, OF, Dominican Republic
Cesar Rodriguez, C, Venezuela
Yorlis Rodriguez, INF, Cuba
Stanley Rosario, OF, Dominican Republic
Yeison Santana, INF, Dominican Republic
Junior Santos, RHP, Dominican Republic
Karlos Seijas, RHP, Venezuela
Florencio Serrano, RHP, Mexico
Angel Sosa, RHP, Venezuela
Victor Soteldo, RHP, Venezuela
Jose Tena, SS, Dominican Republic
Heitor Tokar, RHP, Brazil
Raider Uceta, OF, Dominican Republic
Victor Vargas, RHP, Colombia
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.