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The Rays still miss Willy Adames, but they are a better team today

John Romano | Getting Drew Rasmussen and JP Feyereisen from Milwaukee for Adames could turn out to be one of Tampa Bay’s most valuable trades.
Drew Rasmussen, who is scheduled to start on Wednesday against the Marlins at Tropicana Field, has been close to a sure bet since being moved into the Rays rotation in 2021. Rasmussen has started 18 games, and the Rays have won 14.
Drew Rasmussen, who is scheduled to start on Wednesday against the Marlins at Tropicana Field, has been close to a sure bet since being moved into the Rays rotation in 2021. Rasmussen has started 18 games, and the Rays have won 14. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 24

ST. PETERSBURG — By now, we know better than to immediately pounce on the wisdom/insanity of any trade made by the Rays. Today’s inexplicable deal can turn out to be tomorrow’s saving grace.

Sometimes, these things take years to fully appreciate. Sometimes, they never do. Either way, it’s best to temper any reaction until we have results and not just projections.

Take the Willy Adames trade, for instance. The Rays dealt him to Milwaukee one year ago this week, and your thoughts in 2021 were probably different than your feelings now and your hopes for the future.

To sum up the potential arc of the deal for Tampa Bay:

Yesterday: Well, crap.

Today: Heck, yeah.

Tomorrow: Hoo, boy!

Adames was one of the most popular players to pass through the Rays clubhouse and a lot of fans were unhappy to see him shipped off to the National League for a pair of relief pitchers who were not among Milwaukee’s top prospects, according to Baseball America.

And yet, while Adames went on to finish in the top 20 in National League MVP voting, the Rays had their best regular season in franchise history after acquiring Drew Rasmussen and JP Feyereisen.

The deal aligned perfectly for both teams because Milwaukee had an excess of pitching and a hole at shortstop, while the Rays had Wander Franco and Taylor Walls waiting in the wings.

“It’s safe to say this trade helped both teams win more games than they would have otherwise,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “We won 100 games with contributions from both JP and Drew, and Milwaukee did awfully well for themselves, too.”

But it’s possible that the best part of the story has yet to be written.

Feyereisen, without a doubt, has been a revelation in the Rays bullpen. A 16th-round draft pick who spent six seasons in the minors and was traded three times, the Rays detected an uptick in his performance during spring training in Arizona with Milwaukee in 2021.

In his first full calendar year in Tampa Bay, Feyereisen has gone 7-2 with a 1.59 ERA and three saves in 51 appearances.

Yet as good as Feyereisen has been and as happy as Milwaukee is with Adames, it is Rasmussen who could turn out to be the biggest name in the deal a decade down the road.

Willy Adames was one of the most popular players to pass through the Rays clubhouse before he was traded to Milwaukee for pitchers Drew Rasmussen and JP Feyereisen.
Willy Adames was one of the most popular players to pass through the Rays clubhouse before he was traded to Milwaukee for pitchers Drew Rasmussen and JP Feyereisen. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Because the Rays have been mindful of his injury history while he makes the transition from reliever to starter, Rasmussen has not compiled a ton of innings or other countable stats.

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But on the mound in a starting role, Rasmussen has been one of baseball’s most effective pitchers. In 18 regular-season starts since the trade, he is 7-1 and the Rays have won 14 of those games.

Rasmussen’s ERA as a starter is 2.12, which is second only to Jacob deGrom among pitchers with at least 15 starts since 2021.

“It’s a power arm with command, a power arm with strikes,” Neander said. “Over the course of 18 starts, he is learning about his repertoire himself and adapting very, very quickly to figure out what’s best for him and what’s best to have success against Major League hitters.

“You’re seeing a pretty rapid evolution from him transitioning into the rotation. Although he did it successfully, he was doing it with a bit of a bullpen mentality. Now, he comes into camp this year learning a new breaking ball, or two, and reinventing himself almost on the fly after having success. I don’t know what’s ahead for him, but I couldn’t imagine it having gone better up to this point.”

The challenge with Rasmussen, 26, is figuring out his limits. The reason he was pitching in relief with Milwaukee is because the Brewers were concerned about his health.

The last time he threw more than 100 innings in a season was as an Oregon State freshman in 2015, and that was two Tommy John surgeries ago. Barring any kind of setback he’ll likely go over 100 innings this season, but the Rays want to be sure they do not push him too hard given his past elbow problems.

Does that mean limiting him to five-inning starts? Does that mean skipping starts or giving him some sort of mid-year breather? The Rays want him available for October starts, so that means being extra mindful of how many innings he has in the regular season.

The larger point?

Rasmussen was a relative unknown in Tampa Bay when the 2021 season began, but is now one of the most valuable arms in the organization.

It cost the Rays dearly to get him and Feyereisen, but one year later no one is looking back in regret.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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