HELP WANTED – Rays shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG – The Tampa Bay Rays’ organization is presently between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” The myriad of issues surrounding Rays’ shortstop Wander Franco encompasses the dynamics of legalities, baseball acumen, character, response from teammates, and integrity.

Whatever the future for Franco, a decision, or several decisions, will have lasting ramifications. This will hold for Franco, the Rays organization and for Major League Baseball.

No decision will appease all parties and likely, animosities and acrimony will linger like a bad first date. While Franco, a 22-year-old with a plethora of talent, awaits his fate, it appears a reprieve was granted.

The quandary with Franco dates back to last August when claims surfaced he had inappropriate conduct with a minor. At that time, Major League Baseball conducted its own investigation and subsequently placed Franco on administrative leave on August 22.

In the subsequent inquiry reported by the Associated Press, ESPN, and other outlets, Franco was discovered to have paid the individual’s mother in cash and cars for consent to continue the conduct. This was a result of Franco taking the girl from her home in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and conducting a four-month relationship.

To commence and continue this conduct, Franco paid the girl’s mother in money and valuables for consent.

As the conduct evolved, the girl accused her mother of not sharing in the payments, which were alleged in the sum of $1,700 a month for seven months and the girl’s mother gained possession of a Suzuki Swift super-mini car worth $26,000. Authorities alleged the girl’s mother’s bank account was listed at $821 at the time of the car presentation  Authorities also alleged the girl’s mother bought property in Puerto Plata worth $36,000.

In late December, Franco was summoned to a court in the Dominican Republic to respond to these questions. He failed to appear on Dec, 28 and, on another court appearance on Jan. 5 was granted a conditional release. He now awaits judgment from Judge Rumaldi Marcelino.

Going forward, Franco appears at the mercy of Judge Marcelino, who can release Franco on bond, arrest him, prevent him from leaving the country, or require regular court appearances until an outcome is judged.

All of which puts the Rays in a most difficult position. Should Franco be found guilty of these charges, Major League Baseball could terminate his contract. This was a mega contract signed Nov. 23, 2021, an 11-year deal for $182 million.

To protect teams from paying a significant amount of money if a player is found guilty of wrongful conduct, a morality clause can take effect. Should a player is found in violation of the morality clause and found guilty of charges, MLB has the right to terminate the contract.

Should Franco be found guilty, the Rays organization will quickly move forward. The ultimate decision and result will likely reside with Stuart Sternberg, the Rays’ principal owner. Sternberg’s decision should highlight the on-going relationship between an owner and team.

“(Success) starts with the owner,” said Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper after a game during a 2022-23 season. “For us, we have an owner (Jeffrey Vinik) who cares about his team and his fan base, and he holds important values. That trickles down and we have basically the same management and coaching staff for a decade now. We are a pretty tight-knit group.”

In facing the Franco scenario, Sternberg would be wise to consider the Rays’ fan base and make those decisions in the best interest of the organization. Already, Erik Neander, president of the Rays’ baseball operations, began planning for a Franco departure.

During the first weekend in January, the Rays acquired infielder Jose Caballero from Seattle for outfielder Luke Raley. To compensate for dealing the left-handed Raley to the Pacific Northwest, the Rays picked up left-handed hitting outfielder Richie Palacios from St. Louis in exchange for veteran reliever Andrew Kittredge.

Coming into spring training next month, veteran Taylor Walls, recovering from hip surgery, and Osleivis Basabe are listed on top of the Rays’ shortstop depth chart.

To this point, the Rays have no comment on any aspect of Franco’s ordeal. In the past, the organization made it clear it would abide by any decision rendered by Major League Baseball.

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