HOUSTON -- The Rays are, as their own center fielder Kevin Kiermaier suggested in the wake of the Game 4 victory over the Astros in the American League Division Series, a squad sans stars. The team that has stunned the baseball world by pushing the 107-win Houston club to the
HOUSTON -- The Rays are, as their own center fielder Kevin Kiermaier suggested in the wake of the Game 4 victory over the Astros in the American League Division Series, a squad sans stars. The team that has stunned the baseball world by pushing the 107-win Houston club to the brink has a ton of talent, like reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, breakout starter Tyler Glasnow, All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows, the magnetic Tommy Pham and decorated veteran Charlie Morton. We have even heard some “Ji-Man Choi!” chants break out at Tropicana Field during the postseason, which is one of the best things that has ever happened.
Stars, though? No, the Rays, owners of baseball’s lowest payroll, don’t really have any stars of national renown. But what they do have, if this ALDS that wraps with Game 5 at Minute Maid Park on Thursday is any indication, is a potential star in the making in shortstop Willy Adames.
“He’s one of those guys,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, “that have that ‘it’ factor.”
The baseball world saw “it” on display when the 24-year-old Adames made one of the great postseason relay throws of recent -- or even not-so-recent -- memory in the top of the fourth inning of Tuesday’s 4-1 victory. To receive Kiermaier’s throw and then turn and fire a 195-foot laser required not just arm strength but precision and poise.
“He’s playing a premium position at a very calm pace,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “The relay throw was showing a little bit of all of that in one play. Let alone the power.”
Ah, yes. The power. Adames showed that minutes later, when he led off the bottom of the fourth inning by taking Justin Verlander deep with a 421-foot home run that left the bat at 108.3 mph and clanged off one of Tropicana Field’s signature catwalks.
“I feel really happy that my bat was woken up, but most importantly to help the team win,” Adames told MLB.com's Juan Toribio. “It feels good that I’m doing my part with both my bat and defense. Hopefully, I can keep doing it during the postseason, and especially in Game 5, which could be one of the most important games in our careers.”
Per STATS, no player had ever thrown a runner out at the plate (excluding forceouts) and then led off the next half-inning with a homer. Adames did it with some major Trop pop -- and just one day after he went 3-for-3 with a homer and a double in Game 3.
“When he puts it all together, you can see why they’ve stuck with him, developed him and continued to give him opportunities,” Hinch added. “He’s explosive and maturing in front of everybody’s eyes. We don’t talk enough about the maturation of players. We want them to get up here and be who they’re going to be immediately. He’s a player who was given the opportunities and had some growing pains as he figured himself out and the league out.”
Much was expected of Adames when he was identified as a key piece -- the key piece, according to some at the time -- of the trade package netted when the Rays sent their homegrown ace, David Price, to the Tigers in mid-2014. At the time, Adames was just 18 years old and in Class A ball. He had entered the season ranked a distant 30th among Tigers prospects by Baseball America but had an eye-opening year at West Michigan, where he was the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League.
"He has all the intangibles,” Rays senior advisor Mitch Lukevics told MLB.com shortly after the trade, “to learn and to master his trade."
Four years can unfairly feel like an eternity in baseball, but that’s how long it took for Adames to get his first shot in the bigs. He debuted on May 22, 2018, and his first season provided decent offense for your average shortstop (a 109 Weighted Runs Created Plus, which means his total contributions were 9 percent better than the league average) but created some major defensive questions.
“I can honestly say last year, I thought Willy was probably going to go to second base, because his throws were pretty bad all the time,” Snell said. “And fielding-wise, he was just OK.”
Snell maintained those doubts in Spring Training, but he noticed something. Adames kept working. If Cash was hitting him ground balls, he wanted them hit harder. If infield coach Rodney Linares had suggestions for how to improve his routine and increase his workload, he took that advice.
“I mean, that dude is dedicated now,” Snell said. “He’s grown probably the most I’ve seen out of anyone.”
Adames went from minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 to plus-13 this year -- the fifth-highest total among qualified shortstops and the most of any AL shortstop. And while the bat was slow to emerge this season, his .278/.340/.467 slash line after the All-Star break -- to say nothing of the way he’s risen to the occasion in this postseason round -- has the arrow pointed upward.
“Offensively, he’s started to cover a lot more pitches,” Hinch observed. “You can’t go just one way to get him out. When he was younger, he was more aggressive and swinging outside the zone a little more.”
How have the pesky Rays managed to make a genuine series out of this set with an MLB superpower (loaded with genuine household names)? Lots of ways, of course. But Adames has stood out as a particularly pivotal one. And while the Rays’ lack of starpower is perhaps their biggest charm, they might just have a burgeoning star at short.
“We heard coming up through the Minor Leagues, Willy kind of always rose up,” Cash said. “The brighter the lights, the better he played. We're certainly seeing that now.”
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.