At No. 12 on our list of top prospects in franchise history is our final active prospect.
12. SS Willy Adames
Acquired: Traded by Tigers (2015)
Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 10 (2016), 46 (2015), 84 (2014)
Organization Top-30 ranks: 1 (2014), 1 (2016), 2 (2015), 30 (2013*)
League Top-20 ranks: 2 (2016 Southern League), 4 (2015 Florida State League), 5 (2014 Midwest League), 5 (2017 International League)
League best tools: Best infield arm (2014 Midwest League, 2017 International League), Best defensive shortstop (2017 International League)
Baseball could be in a new golden age for shortstops. All across the league, there are talented hitters, talented fielders, and the best of the best who can do it all. As a prospect, Adames is right up there with many of them.
After the 2016 season, he was ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the league. He was behind three shortstops — Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, and the Mets’ Amed Rosario. He was also ahead of three highly ranked shortstops — Philadelphia’s J.P. Crawford, Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies, who also plays second base, and Colorado’s Brendan Rodgers.
The 2016 season was Adames’ best as a professional. He set numerous career highs, including in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, home runs, and steals. His strikeout and walk rates were the best among his first three seasons playing in the United States. For his efforts as a 20 year old in Double A, he earned a Futures Game appearance.
Detroit signed Adames on July 2, 2012 for $420,000. For a Dominican teenager, that’s quite a bit of money, but it wasn’t even among the 30 biggest bonuses given out to international prospects that signing period. The Rays themselves signed three players to bigger bonuses that summer.
Baseball America’s early report on Adames ($) is actually not too different from what we know about him today. He had some power potential with the tools to stick at shortstop, but there was some concern he could outgrow the position. Players, especially ones who are only 16 years old when they sign, can often change drastically before reaching the majors. It doesn’t seem like he has.
What Adames has done is show steady progress throughout his professional career. His numbers haven’t uniformly improved every season, but since he debuted on BA’s Top-100 list, he has improved his ranking each time. When the 2018 edition rolls around, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did so again.
He made his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2013 and got his career off to a nice start. Although he batted just .245, he posted an OBP over .400 with 12 more walks than strikeouts. Because of the promise he showed, BA ranked him as the No. 30 Tigers prospect.
In nearly every instance, a player coming to the U.S. from the DSL will debut in a complex league — the Gulf Coast League or Arizona League — or another short-season league, like the Appalachian League. Adames went straight to full-season ball in the Midwest League, where he was one of the youngest players.
He was impressive in 98 games with West Michigan, batting .269 with a .774 OPS. It was that performance at such a young age that made him the centerpiece of the blockbuster three-team trade that sent David Price to Detroit, even though the other two players the Rays acquired — Nick Franklin and Drew Smyly — had major league experience and had been quality prospects in their own right.
Adames wrapped up that season with Bowling Green, still in the Midwest League. He was hot to close the season and finished with a .782 OPS, good for 17th in the league. Only four players ahead of him played in the middle of the diamond, including future Ray Andrew Velazquez. Only two players ahead of him were also younger than 20 years old — Velazquez, and another future Ray, Jake Bauers.
In 2015, he advanced to Class A-Advanced Charlotte. Although his OPS dipped 61 points, the league OPS dropped 42 points, so he still performed well above average. An elbow injury eventually led to his season ending prematurely.
After the 2016 breakout season that included an appearance in the Futures Game, Adames faced some adversity. In his first two months with Durham, he batted just .230 with a .653 OPS. It was likely the worst stretch of his professional career. However, if a player’s biggest test is how he responds to failure, he clearly passed.
In June, he batted .350 with a .999 OPS, the best monthly split of his career. He hit three home runs after only hitting two over the previous two months. He totaled 35 hits, including his only month of the season with double-digit extra-base hits.
Adames did not maintain that scorching pace for the remainder of the season, and his numbers certainly were off a bit from 2016, but he still finished with a career-high .277 average plus a .360 OBP and .415 SLG. Whether he can tap into any more power potential will be something to watch.
We’re just months away from Adames’ major league debut. It seems more likely than ever that he can stick at shortstop, and with his potential at the plate, he can be a true impact player. Combined with his intangible qualities, like his standout work ethic and leadership, and he could finally be the long-term franchise shortstop the Rays have been hunting for their entire existence.