HOUSTON — He is still a happening, a phenomenon, a can’t-miss prospect.
But maybe shortstop Wander Franco doesn’t need to be in such a hurry, after all.
That’s how good Willy Adames has been recently. The Rays current shortstop has turned Franco, the game’s No. 1 prospect, into a conversation for another day in Tampa Bay.
It has been more noticeable during the postseason, but the clues have been there for two months. Actually, all season if you’ve been watching closely.
“He’s really stepped it up,’’ said manager Kevin Cash. “It’s been awesome to sit and watch what he’s done briefly in a young career.’’
It began slowly. Almost imperceptibly. One day, Adames was a placeholder at shortstop and the next he was a budding star.
He was clearly a talent when he came up in late May of 2018 as a 22-year-old, but Adames always seemed less than he should be. He had pop at the plate, but struck out too much and had no sense of situational hitting. He had excellent range in the field, but had a terrible habit of misfiring on routine throws.
Adames was good enough to hold the position, but not special enough to make you think shortstop was solved in Tampa Bay.
“Last year I thought Willy, honestly, I thought he was probably going to go to second base because his throws were pretty bad all the time. And fielding-wise he was just okay,’’ said pitcher Blake Snell. “And then he came to spring training and he looked pretty good. I still had my doubts. And then to see what he did throughout the season and then every day, I mean every day this man takes ground balls, and he wants more, and he wants Cash to hit them harder. He’s working with Rodney (Linares) all the time. I mean that dude is dedicated now.
“I would say when he got here he was just enjoying the moment and he finally learned how to take the moment and make it his. I think that’s the most special thing about him.’’
As the season grinds into its eighth month, the Rays are doing what they can to keep players fresh. Most workouts have been optional. Players can pick and choose when they want to take batting practice or just hit off a tee in the cage.
Not Adames. Not when it comes to fielding drills. He and Linares continue the same routine before every game. The coach throws a series of rubber balls and baseballs at Adames who begins by fielding them on his knees and with his bare hands and gradually moves into a fielding position.
When the Rays had infield practice before Games 4 and 5, Adames was the only starter who was on the field for every ground ball.
“His throws, of course, have been way more consistent,’’ said left fielder Tommy Pham. “His footwork’s better, his hands. Give a lot of credit to Rodney for working with him. He’s very underrated. Gold Glove-deserving.’’
He’s gone from being barely adequate at shortstop to being an elite defender. Based on a fangraphs.com analysis, he was second only to the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons for runs saved defensively at shortstop in the American League in 2019.
“He’s playing with an all-time confidence right now,’’ Cash said. “Willy is one of those guys that have that ‘it’ factor. He carries himself really, really well in the clubhouse. He carries himself really, really well on the field. You can’t knock the smile off his face.’’
If the glove began to improve in the spring, the bat has followed in the summer and fall. Since July 31, Adames has hit .299 with 10 home runs, including the postseason. Not coincidentally, the Rays are 38-20 during that stretch.
“This is what we play for, to come to the postseason. For me personally, it’s my first full year and to get to the postseason means a lot,’’ Adames said. “Tells me that we have a pretty good group in Tampa. We have a pretty good, bright future.’’
Not so long ago, the future at shortstop in Tampa Bay was clearly Franco. There was talk he could arrive in the majors late next season, and possibly be starting as a 20-year-old in 2021.
Now, there is more to consider. Do the Rays think about moving Adames to second or third base? Do they think about moving Franco to third? By 2021, Adames will be a year away from arbitration, so do the Rays think about trading him when his stock is high?
These are questions that don’t need to be answered for at least another year or two.
The good news is that Adames has forced his way into the conversation.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.