When the Tampa Bay Rays first acquired Nick Franklin, there were plenty of other thoughts on everyone’s minds. Principal among them, of course, was that the Rays had just traded ace David Price. Even with that the case, though, a lot people were surprised when the Rays assigned Franklin to Triple-A Durham. Franklin had a solid rookie season in 2013 only to see the Seattle Mariners block him with Robinson Cano, and there was no similar obstacle in Franklin’s way in Tampa Bay. Ben Zobrist is an outstanding second baseman in his own right, but both him and Franklin play a variety of positions and they could have both been accommodated on the roster. Nevertheless, Franklin headed to Triple-A and we were forced to wait. Some people used that to disparage Franklin, dismissing him as a utility player at best. Franklin’s first game with the Rays showed that they regard him as much more than that.
We know how Nick Franklin performed in his first major league contest with his new team. He went 2 for 4 with a double, an RBI, and a run scored, helping to lead the way as the Rays beat the New York Yankees 6-1. Those numbers, however, are a small sample size that tells us little. There were a few other factors that tell us more. The Rays decided to bat Franklin fifth in his first game with the team, ahead of Matt Joyce and Yunel Escobar. Having the switch-hitting Franklin bat in that spot ensured that the Rays never had two straight pure righty hitters or two straight pure lefty bats at any point in their lineup, but Franklin did not need to be the guy batting fifth. Escobar had actually batted fifth as recently as Monday, and he could have been there with Franklin batting seventh. Instead, the Rays showed off their confidence in him and saw him take advantage of being in a middle-of-the-order spot before the game was through.
The other thing to note was Franklin’s position, second base. The Rays have said that Franklin will play there and nowhere else. We know that the Rays love versatility, and Franklin has major league experience at three other positions, but the team is ignoring that for now. The reason is simple: the Rays believe that Franklin is their second baseman of the future, or at least one of the foremost candidates for the role. The Rays certainly are not auditioning Franklin to be a utility player, and they will worry about whether he fits best with them in a super-utility role next spring training. For now, their sole focus will be getting him reps at the position they can imagine him taking hold of for a long time.
Lastly, we have to talk about Franklin’s at-bat in the seventh inning. The Rays were up by just two runs, the bases were loaded, and on the mound was a crafty lefty. That is a spot where often the manager would not even second-guess pinch-hitting for his young infielder–and that isn’t even taking into account that Franklin has struggled with lefties in the past. But Joe Maddon decided to let Franklin bat, and on the second pitch of the plate appearance, he lined an RBI single to extend the Rays’ lead to 4-1. The Rays are waiting to see how well Franklin will fare as a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitching, but one thing we can say for certain is that the Rays will give him every chance to prove that he can be an everyday starter.
Nick Franklin’s first game with the Rays was about as good as anyone could have hoped, and the signs of the Rays’ confidence in him speak to where they see his future on their team. Amid a lost season, Franklin can be a bright spot for the Rays, a harbinger of the success they hope will return next season and not depart again.