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In year of transition, Adames' development impresses Rays

After being sent to Tampa Bay in trade with Tigers, shortstop flourishing in new environment

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- When Willy Adames reported to Tigers camp in February, he spoke no English. He barely recognized anyone around him. Adames was 18 years old, and it was the first time he'd left his native Dominican Republic. He was nervous.

"When you come here and you leave your family, you miss them a lot," Adames said Wednesday. "The food is not the same. The people, you don't know nobody. Everything is different."

If Adames has struggled with this year full of demanding transitions, it's been hard to tell. Less than two months after he was traded to the Rays in the three-team David Price deal, Adames is finishing his first full season in America by playing in the instructional league at Tampa Bay's Spring Training complex.

Adames held his own as the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League, setting him up for a promotion next season -- at 19 years old -- to the Rays' Class A Advanced affiliate in the Florida State League. He jokes and laughs with his teammates. Adames speaks English well enough to communicate and converse.

In short, everything about Adames' rapid development off the field has impressed the Rays.

"I've heard all the good, but seeing it here firsthand was remarkable," Tampa Bay director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics said. "Some guys are able to do it better than others, and Willy's able to do it."

The Rays knew they were getting a talented young shortstop when they parted with Price, their ace and fan favorite, to acquire left-hander Drew Smyly and Adames from Detroit and infielder Nick Franklin from Seattle. Smyly thrived in Tampa Bay's rotation, Franklin earned a September callup, and Adames showed his ability on the field, batting .271/.353/.429 with eight homers, 19 doubles, 14 triples and 61 RBIs in 125 games between Class A West Michigan and Bowling Green.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Adames has the most upside of any player in the Rays' system, where he's ranked their No. 2 prospect behind 2014 first-round Draft pick Casey Gillaspie. On the day of the trade, Tampa Bay executive vice president Andrew Friedman said that Adames "has a chance to be a really good player," and his potential offset some of the risk inherent in acquiring any player in the low Minor Leagues.

"He can swing the bat. Defensively, he has the skill to play the middle of the diamond," Lukevics said. "We have to keep in mind that this past year he was league-age-18, and he has a long way to go to know how to play the game. But he has all the intangibles to learn and to master his trade."

But the Rays didn't know as much about the kind of person they had picked up. They quickly discovered they had "inherited" from the Tigers, as Lukevics put it, a hard-working, coachable athlete capable of handling a full-season assignment his first year in a foreign country -- despite being the same age as your average high school senior.

"It's a big advantage to us so we can help speed up the learning curve," Lukevics said. "The cultural change, that's something we try to educate our players on. Willy came at 18, and he had already surpassed that, which was a great and pleasant surprise to us ... It's one sort of obstacle that we did not have to deal with."

Adames grew up outside Santiago, started playing baseball when he was 5 years old and moved to the city when he was 15 so he could train. He signed with the Tigers as a 16-year-old in 2012 for $420,000. Adames spent the 2013 season playing for Detroit's Dominican Summer League team, batting a respectable .245/.419/.370, with more walks than strikeouts.

The Tigers offered an English class for their Latin American players, so Adames took advantage of it. He said he worked with his teammates every day to learn the language, and the results in roughly seven months are impressive. Away from home for the first time, Adames considered those West Michigan teammates to be like brothers.

Then, all of a sudden, at the July 31 Trade Deadline, Adames was on the move again. He was shocked when he got the call from the Tigers. Adames remembered crying after he heard the news.

"That was hard, because I've got a family in Detroit with my other teammates," Adames said. "That's going to happen. The saying, 'It's baseball.' I have to make a new family here, new teammates."

Adames is off to a good start on that front. After joining Bowling Green, Adames "just was himself, being loud, being funny," said Rays second-base prospect Kean Wong, who could be manning the middle of the infield with Adames for years to come. Adames added telling jokes and "singing, dancing, everything" to the list of things he did to make himself at home in the Hot Rods' clubhouse.

"I just want to try to be happy, always," Adames said. "I want to make a good relationship with my teammates."

Adames will spend the offseason back in the Dominican, excited about possibly playing winter ball in front of his family for the Tigres del Licey. When he reports back to Charlotte Sports Park this spring, he'll see some familiar faces. Adames will have made another positive first impression after a year full of successful transitions.

He might even be a little less nervous this time around.

"It's going to be much easier starting the year fresh and getting to know people," Adames said, "as opposed to coming in in August, halfway through the year, without knowing anybody."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
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