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The Debut: Willy Adames

It’s hard to imagine the Rays without Willy Adames, but it’s only been two years since his debut

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In July 2014, the Rays, in characteristic fashion, traded away their ace and the franchise’s first Cy Young award winner, David Price.

A Price trade seemed likely back in July 2014. The pitcher was one and a half seasons away from free agency with no interest in signing a team-friendly extension. The 2014 Rays didn’t seem to be contenders. But as the July 31, 4pm trade deadline approached, no trade had been announced.

With just 15 minutes remaining, news broke that the Rays had indeed traded the ace of their rotation...chaos ensued.

The Detroit Tigers, who were in the midst of a game against the Chicago White Sox, removed Austin Jackson from center field in the middle of an at-bat, signaling that he was more than likely on the move. He left to a standing ovation from the Detroit crowd. After hugging his teammates, he departed to the clubhouse.

You might have thought he was on his way to St. Petersburg, but in fact he’d been traded to Seattle (I believe there is some bit in the MLB rule books stating that Jerry DiPoto must be involved in any Rays-related trade), as part of a three team deal. The Rays were getting infielder Nick Franklin and southpaw Drew Smyly for David Price. That’s not a lot for a Cy Young winner!

But there was one more player coming to the Rays from Detroit — one of those lottery ticket prospects. During the 2012 international signing period, the Detroit Tigers had signed a 16 year old shortstop from the Dominican Republic by the name of Willy Adames.

Adames had a stellar start to his career with the Tigers and they were aggressive with their placement of him. As the trade deadline in 2014 approached, Adames, just 18 years old, had a 124 wRC+ in Single-A.

However, prior to the start of the season, Adames was ranked just 30th in the Tigers system so when the announcement was made that he was the final player involved in the trade for David Price, fans were bewildered.

They would soon find out however, that Adames was much better than his preseason ranking would suggest. He surged to the top of the Rays prospect rankings and was named the 84th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America entering the 2015 season.

Adames enjoyed considerable success at each level during his ascent through the Rays system. His Baseball America rankings entering the season over the following years, would be as follows: 46th, 10th, and 19th. Even in the lower minors he was always praised for his energy and innate leadership.

By the time the 2018 season came around, Adames was knocking on the door of the majors at the ripe age of 22 years old.

On May 22nd, 2018, the Willy Adames era in Tampa Bay officially — sort of —began.

The Tampa Bay Rays were at Tropicana Field and welcoming the Boston Red Sox into town for a three game set. Joey Wendle went on the paternity list and the Red Sox started two lefties during the series, so the timing seemed perfect for the Rays to call up their top position playing prospect.

Despite arriving at the stadium less than an hour before the first pitch, Adames was penciled into the starting lineup as the team’s shortstop, and batting fifth.

His first opportunity at the plate came during the bottom of the first inning with runners on the corners and two away.

How does Chris Sale greet the rookie? He throws him a slider that starts from nearly beyond the lefty batter box and barely scrapes by the plate on the outside corner for a called strike.

After watching the second pitch rise well above the zone, Adames took a mighty rip at Sale’s 1-1 offering — a 98 mph fastball right down the middle — and swung through it.

Sale attempted to put Adames away with a slider that cut past the bottom of the zone, but Adames was able to get a piece of it and foul it off to stay alive. Adames was able to foul off another fastball to further extend the at-bat, but Sale was able to blow a 97 mph fastball by a swinging Adames to strike him out, ending his first big league plate appearance.

Defensively, Adames got his first look in the field the following frame when with a runner on first and one away, Xander Bogaerts hit a hard groundball directly to the shortstop. Adames fielded the ball cleanly, but may have underestimated his distance from second base as he shoveled a toss to Daniel Robertson. The lob came in low, but Robertson was able to corral the throw and sidearm a throw to first. The throw pulled CJ Cron off the bag, but he was able to tag out the hard charging Bogaerts before he reached the base to complete the double play.

Willy Adames was back up to the plate for his second plate appearance in the bottom of the 4th with Chris Sale still on the mound, with Boston leading 3-0.

After falling behind Adames, 1-0, Sale made a mistake. He hurled a change-up that stayed flat and cruised down the center of the plate. Adames, who had been pumped fastballs during his first at-bat, managed to stay back just enough to barrel up the meaty pitch.

Adames made contact and launched a moonshot that soared through the Tropicana Field atmosphere and landed several rows deep in the left field seats for a solo home run. The ball left Adames’ bat at a velocity of 107 mph and traveled approximately 385 feet.

With the tremendous blast, Adames became just the 5th player in franchise history to hit a homerun in their Major League debut, joining a group that consists of Brent Abernathy, Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, and Brandon Guyer.

Despite Adames’ homerun, the Rays still trailed the Red Sox, 3-1.

Adames’ next venture of the day came during the 6th inning when he fielded a routine groundball off the bat of Eduardo Nunez. Adames fielded the ball cleanly and made a solid throw to Cron to retire Nunez.

During the bottom of the 6th inning, Adames faced Sale for a third time and the former Cy Young carved through the rookie using just three pitches to effectively dismantle Adames, striking him out with a fastball just above the zone.

With a runner on base in the top of the 7th, Adames was able to showcase his strong throwing arm as Andrew Benintendi bounced a ball towards the right side of the infield. Daniel Robertson fielded the ball cleanly, as he was making a quick pivot to toss the ball to Adames, who was covering the bag.

Adames took the throw and quickly stepped from the bag to make the toss to first and threw a strike to Cron to complete the double play.

During the top of the 9th, Adames would take part in his third double play of the day, this went about as smoothly as possible with Adames fielding the ball cleanly, flipping to Robertson for the first out, who in turn threw to Cron to retire the hitter by at least 45 feet.

Adames got his last chance at the plate in the bottom of the 9th, facing Craig Kimbrel with a runner on first and the score, 4-2.

Kimbrel and Adames battled for eight pitches, with Adames offering several healthy rips at Kimbrel’s offerings.

Unfortunately, on the 8th pitch of the battle, Kimbrel painted the outside corner with a 97 mph fastball that Adames tried in vain to make contact with as the ball passing by the bat and into the mitt of the catcher for the third strike.

This ended Adames’ day and he compiled a hit — the solo homerun — in four trips to the plate, while also garnering the three strikeouts.

Although 2018 had some bumps, which included a return to Durham for much of June and July, Adames has since established himself as one of the leaders in the Rays clubhouse. It took a short while following his debut, but Adames eventually became the Rays everyday shortstop.

During the 2019 season, Adames worked hard at improving his defense and his work paid dividends as he became one of the top defensive shortstops in all of the game, finishing second in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved.

When the 2020 season eventually gets underway, Adames will look to continue the strong start to his big league career.


You may watch all 13 minutes of Willy Adames’ big league debut below