Willy Adames is here to help, even to Rays angling for his job

The shortstop’s personality, demeanor and team-first attitude are key, even with you-know-who lurking.
Rays shortstop Willy Adames waves to a teammate during a spring training workout last month in Port Charlotte.
Rays shortstop Willy Adames waves to a teammate during a spring training workout last month in Port Charlotte. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]
Published March 5, 2021|Updated March 6, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE — You’re Willy Adames, and you’ve worked your butt off to get to this point, the starting shortstop for the Rays.

You’ve gotten a little bit of fame for your play in the majors over the past 2½ seasons, and a fortune — through the riches of arbitration eligibility — is looming.

You’re only 25, and the future is very much ahead of you.

Unless the future is the guy standing next to you on the field — Wander Franco, the consensus top prospect in the game for a second straight year. Or by the dugout, in Taylor Walls, the best defensive infielder in the organization. Or Vidal Brujan, Xavier Edwards, Greg Jones or any of the other young, promising middle infielders the Rays have lurking in the minors.

You could be polite and professional publicly but view them for what they are — threats to take your job and your money, to get you traded.

Or you could show who you are, embracing them as teammates, offering to help them, insisting on paying forward the guidance you got on the way up for the good of the Rays and the game.

“It’s really easy to let what’s inside our organization, sometimes the competitiveness, kind of tear us apart,” Walls said. “But he has been the glue to this thing. He helps everybody stay meshed, stay competitive, stay laughing, joking.”

Manager Kevin Cash wouldn’t expect Adames to handle the situation any differently.

“We’ve known it for a long time, Willy is a special personality,” Cash said. “There just aren’t that many guys that are like him, that bring a group together.

“He knows how good Wander is and how talented he is, and he knows the hype. But (Adames) also understands that he’s our shortstop. He’s the guy that when the game is on the line that we want the ball hit to. And when you have that type of confidence, I think it makes some of those relationships a little easier to be as forthcoming and encouraging as Willy has been.”

Adames said he doesn’t know any other way.

“I don’t have to worry about somebody taking my job,” he said. “I want them to get better. Because I’m getting better too, you know. It’s not that I’m just helping them and I’m staying at the same level. I’m trying to get to the next level.

“So I don’t (mind) to help Franco, Brujan, whoever. Because they have to do their thing to get to the big leagues and stay there. And I had to do my thing to stay here and continue to get better. So I don’t even think about that. I’m just another guy who tries to help the teammates.”

The Rays quickly got a sense of how special Adames was after acquiring him in July 2014 as the key prospect piece in one of their unpopular trades, David Price going to Detroit in a three-way deal.

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As Adames climbed from low to advanced Class A and then to Double-A in 2016, former farm director Mitch Lukevics kept getting glowing reports about his personality, charisma, leadership skills, positive attitude and selfless approach.

“He’s the pied piper,” Lukevics said in January 2017, and still uses the phrase today.

“People follow him,” added Lukevics, now a senior advisor. “People want to be around him. He had that effervescent personality. He fit right in. And it was from day one. He had that in his DNA. That’s who he is.”

Actually, Adames said, he wasn’t always that way. Or at least not in the United States. When he first came over from the Dominican Republic as an 18-year-old to play for the Tigers affiliate near Grand Rapids, Mich., the language barrier cast him as the shy guy in the back of the room. He didn’t like the role.

“I was like, if I’m going to be here for a long time, I need to learn the language,” Adames said. “I want to be able to communicate, to express myself, to take the help when somebody’s going to help me. So I just put a lot of effort on that.”

The trade accelerated his progress. Team-run English classes, English-language movies with Spanish sub-titles, spending the 2015 season living in Port Charlotte with English-speaking Class A teammates Kean Wong and Andrew Velazquez all helped him become proficient, one of the quickest to do so.

Adames had to have talent, too, and that also became pronounced.

Rays shortstop Willy Adames, left, and prospect Wander Franco take part in an optional workout before last season's AL Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Willy Adames, left, and prospect Wander Franco take part in an optional workout before last season's AL Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

He was a Triple-A team MVP and league all-star as a 21-year-old in 2017, was in the majors to stay by July 2018 and played well during the 2019 season (20 homers, .254 average, AL shortstop-high-matching 12 defensive runs saved) and playoffs.

But he took at least a sidestep in 2020. He hit a little higher (.259) and his eight homers extrapolated to 22 for a full year, but his strikeout rate spiked to 40 percent of his at-bats, up from 28.8 percent in 2019. His postseason was a mess, too, “probably” his worst extended stretch, 8-for-59 (.136) with 25 strikeouts.

But something good may have come of it. Dodgers star Mookie Betts told Adames he should go see a Miami-based swing coach who helped him, Lorenzo Garmendia of Gradum Baseball. Adames was honored Betts cared — “If a guy like Mookie comes to me, obviously I’m going to do it” — and spent more than a month with Garmendia, changing his swing path by moving his hands closer to his body.

How Adames adjusts, how he plays, may determine more about his future with the Rays than whatever progress Franco, Walls and Brujan make in the minors.

“Every year, I’m just trying to be a little bit better,” Adames said.

Actually, he’s always working on something. And usually setting an example. His rubber ball drill work with infield coach Rodney Linares is now a group exercise. His game-speed efforts and energy — not to mention his back and forth with Cash — while taking ground balls provides a tempo for the workouts. His enthusiasm and emotion during games is contagious, always first out of the dugout with congratulations.

Manuel Margot says Adames could be the captain of the team (if they were to have one), noting he will help everyone. Joey Wendle raves about how much fun Adames makes the game. Chris Archer lauds his personality and demeanor. Brujan thanks him for the on- and off-field guidance he provides. Walls appreciates how approachable and inclusive he is. Austin Meadows notes his perpetual positivity.

“I think it’s surprising for maybe most 25-year-olds, but not for Willy, just because we know him so well,” Cash said. “Like we talked about him coming up, he was a leader, every level. And he was the guy in the clubhouse at every level. So it’s only natural that eventually he was going to do those things.

“I don’t even know if Willy would say that he’s a leader in our clubhouse. I know there’s a lot of people that would agree to that. But Willy is not trying to be anything other than himself. And it’s that genuine, and that authenticity, that really shows out and why players respect him so much.”