When Randy Arozarena launched yet another home run in the first inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, Willy Adames hopped in front of his teammates just outside the Rays’ dugout at Petco Park. He met the red-hot Arozarena atop the dugout steps, cheering and dancing.
When Brandon Lowe broke out of his postseason-long slump in the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, Adames bounded out of the Rays’ Globe Life Field dugout, excitedly slapped the railing and met Lowe with a leaping forearm bash in front of manager Kevin Cash. After Lowe’s second home run four innings later, Adames jumped even higher and did it again.
Adames is batting .136 in the postseason, albeit with a team-leading 13 walks. But watching him in the dugout or at shortstop, you wouldn’t know he’s struggled to find hits this month, because he always brings life and positivity to the Rays’ dugout.
A scout identified that trait in Adames a long time ago, months before the Rays acquired him as the 18-year-old centerpiece of the three-team deal that sent former ace David Price to Detroit in 2014, and it has made the 25-year-old a central part of Tampa Bay’s clubhouse culture as an emotional leader.
“It’s rare for a player his age, but once you get to know Willy, his personality’s pretty infectious,” Cash said. “There’s just people that have those traits where people just kind of flock to them, and Willy’s at the top of the list in our clubhouse, in our organization.”
The Rays have earned their reputation as a team that discovers advantages and inefficiencies through data and information. But they also understand the value of Adames’ affable attitude and endless energy. And he knows those traits never slump.
“I don't care if I'm hitting .010. If I can help the team with my defense or my energy, then I'm OK with that. Because it's not about me. It's about winning,” Adames said recently. “You don't win a championship because of one player. You win it as a team, and if I can help out in trying to find a way to keep the energy and the clubhouse loose, then I'm going to do anything I can to try and help the team.”
That’s where the dugout dancing comes from. That’s where the high-flying forearm bashes come from. And that’s why, when the Rays acquire a new player or sign someone like Japanese star Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Adames goes out of his way to make them feel like part of the team.
“He was a guy that reached out to me the most when I first came over,” Tsutsugo said. “He made me feel welcome. He made me feel comfortable. So, he was a very great factor in my assimilation to the team.”
That’s simply who Adames is. Just ask Kevin Ibach, the Rays’ professional scouting director, who first scouted Adames for the Rays in 2014. Adames was only 18 then, new to the United States and playing in his first full professional season. The Tigers clearly liked the young shortstop, because they had him bypass their complex leagues and short-season affiliates and jump straight into Class A ball.
Yet what stood out to Ibach wasn’t necessarily what Adames did when his West Michigan Whitecaps took the field. He was an impressive prospect, sure, and he was young for that level of the Minor Leagues. But in the first scouting report he filed on Adames, Ibach noted the way he behaved among his teammates.
“I alluded to the fact that he was a unifier among that team,” Ibach said.
From 15 rows up in the stands, that seemed unusual. Adames had never left the Dominican Republic before that season, so Ibach didn’t know how much English he spoke. (Adames began learning in 2013, as it turned out.) And the Midwest League is typically cliquish: High school Draft picks stick together, college players do the same, and Latin American players form their own contingent as they adapt culturally and professionally.
Adames was different.
“Willy was the one person that bounced around those three groups. Just non-stop talking and smiling,” Ibach said. “Again, not knowing exactly what he was saying to everybody, but everybody reacted with a smile as he moved around.”
Sound familiar? How about this?
“The first thing that stood out for me is just the charisma and the smile,” Ibach said. “You get there three, four hours before the game to watch early work, and it can be monotonous, day in and day out. One of the things that stood out about Willy is he had more fun as a teenager in those three hours before the game than anyone I’ve ever scouted in that league. Just a smile on his face all the time.”
Still, it’s one thing to realize a player carries himself in a way that might positively impact a team’s clubhouse. It’s a much harder trick to identify an 18-year-old in the Midwest League who might one day turn into the kind of productive Major League shortstop Adames has been three years into his career. And it’s even more challenging to say he’s good enough to be part of the return for a pitcher who was as established and talented as Price.
In July 2014, Ibach was staying at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Altoona, Pa., scouting the Eastern League All-Star Game. Matt Arnold, the Rays’ pro scouting director at the time, called and asked for his impressions of Adames. They stayed on the phone for several hours, and Ibach began to piece it together that the Rays were looking at Adames in a potential Price deal.
Adames wasn’t a particularly well-known prospect at the time -- he became “famous,” in the scouting sense, after the trade -- and Ibach let his bosses know that wouldn’t be the case for long. Adames didn’t have a single standout tool, but he was clearly going to be a valuable player someday. At the same age as most high school seniors, he had the talent of someone who’d get drafted in the top half of the first round.
“I said, 'This guy is flying under the radar; would much rather acquire sooner than later. We might only have one bite at the apple here,'” Ibach said. “It’s not the only report I’ve ever put that verbiage in, but I do feel like in a lot of trades, timing is crucial to that, and identifying players early in their career before they break out is really essential to making a good trade.”
It went down on July 31, 2014, just before the Trade Deadline. Price went to Detroit. The Rays landed Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin and Adames. In St. Petersburg and beyond, many viewed the Rays' return as underwhelming.
But every step along the way, Adames earned rave reviews from teammates, coaches and player development staff. Those reports reached Cash, saying what Ibach saw six years ago and what Adames shows now every time he bursts out of the Rays’ dugout.
“The one common thread in all of that was that this is a special human being, makeup-wise, and this is a guy who brings a lot of energy and passion and charisma to the ballpark every day,” Ibach said. “If you would’ve told me in 2014, sitting 15 rows up in West Michigan, that we’d be sitting in a World Series today and sharing that moment together, I never would’ve predicted that. But it’s very satisfying.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.