Adames the 'glue' in Tampa Bay's clubhouse

March 5th, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- During his first week back in Spring Training with the Rays, Chris Archer quickly took stock of how much had changed during his brief time away. The guys he knew as young big leaguers had grown into regulars with significant postseason experience. And the fledgling shortstop he once took under his wing?

“Dude, I knew you when you were 20 years old. You’re 25 now,” Archer told Willy Adames. “You’re not the kid. You’re the adult.”

More than that, Adames is a leader. He has a natural ability to bring his teammates together, making him a central figure in the Rays’ clubhouse culture and a mentor for the big group of middle infield prospects currently in Major League camp.

Former Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics recognized Adames’ attitude and charisma long ago, nicknaming him “The Pied Piper” when he was still a young prospect. Outfielder Manuel Margot, who roomed with Adames while baseball was shut down last year, has another title in mind.

“I actually joke around with him saying that he's going to be the captain of this team one day,” Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “He's the type of guy, it doesn't matter if he's playing your position or another position, he wants to help.”

Adames’ supportive spirit was on full display on the game’s biggest stage last October, when he was the first player out of the dugout for leaping forearm bashes with Brandon Lowe or a quick dance with Randy Arozarena. It’s not nearly as public on the fields of Charlotte Sports Park during morning infield drills, but the audience doesn’t change his attitude.

“I just try to be a good teammate, and I want to help the guys that I can help, whoever I can help that is around me,” Adames said. “Especially if it's my own teammates, because I want them to get better. I want our team to be the best, so if I can help the guys to get better, I'm willing to do that.”

With an important group of talented, young middle infielders in camp, the Rays count on Adames to lead them by example. Adames modestly said there might not be much he can teach top prospect Wander Franco, but he’s willing to help wherever needed. And it’s clear those young players look up to him the way he admired Archer and Carlos Gómez when he broke into the big leagues.

No. 4 prospect Vidal Bruján said he’s picked up tips from Adames on how to make certain plays in the infield and how to play without feeling pressure. Greg Jones, Tampa Bay's No. 13 prospect, said he wants to see how Adames carries himself, so he can learn what it means to “act like a big leaguer.” Taylor Walls (No. 18 prospect) described Adames as the group’s “glue,” keeping the mood light while keeping them competitive.

That is one part of their dynamic that could seem awkward: At some point, one of those young players will succeed Adames as the Rays’ starting shortstop. He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration next year, clubs have inquired about his availability in trades, and Tampa Bay is simply overflowing with talent up the middle. But Adames doesn’t look at it that way.

“I don't have to worry about somebody taking my job. I want them to get better,” he said. “They have to do their thing to get to the big leagues and stay there, and I have 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.”

Professional scouting director Kevin Ibach first recognized those traits in Adames seven years ago, when he was a Rays scout and Adames was the key to Tampa Bay’s return for David Price at the 2014 Trade Deadline. In the initial report he filed, Ibach noted that Adames seemed to be a unifying presence for his Class A team. He got along with different groups of players and almost magnetically brought them together.

In that regard, not much has changed in seven years.

“Coming up, he was a leader at every level and he was the guy in the clubhouse at every level,” manager Kevin Cash said. “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.”

Adames has always been this way. He said was a little shy when he first joined the organization, uncertain of how to express himself in some situations and uneasy about potentially being perceived the wrong way if he misspoke. But he grew more comfortable as he continued to learn English and got to know his teammates.

And his enthusiasm is untaught. You can’t coach or fake that.

“I just like to enjoy the game, and I like to play,” Adames said. “Whenever somebody is doing good, I enjoy that, too, because I want them to feel the same way when I'm hitting. I want the team to feel like that overall. I like to bring that energy. That just comes natural.”

Adames credited his parents for instilling that outlook in him. They imparted a sense of humility, too, with his father working every day to put food on the table and his mother taking care of him and his sister. When he reached the Majors, Adames said, he took care of his parents and told them they wouldn’t have to work anymore.

When Adames posts pictures on Instagram, you’ll often see him use the hashtag #NoBookBag. That’s a translation of the Dominican phrase “no bulto,” the latter word translating directly to “bookbag,” but used to convey pretentiousness. So the hashtag is simply a reminder to stay humble.

“I'm just trying to play the most games I can and I'm just trying to do my best this year, because I know I can do more than what I've done in the past,” Adames said. “I haven't done my best, and I just want to have my best season and try to help the team go to the World Series again.”

To that end, Adames set out to improve over the offseason. As good as he was at the plate during the first half of last season, he struggled in September and then hit just .136 in the playoffs. Two weeks after the World Series ended with him striking out against Julio Urías, he traveled to Miami and went to work with hitting consultant Lorenzo Garmendia, who was endorsed by Mookie Betts. Hitting coach Chad Mottola said the changes could help Adames cover inside pitches better and use the whole field.

“I struggled, probably my worst-hitting two weeks or three weeks,” Adames said. “If a guy like Mookie comes to me, obviously, I'm going to do it. And I think he helped me a lot. I feel really, really comfortable now at the plate. I'm not there yet, but we're still working on it.”

Adames’ ongoing adjustments are a reminder that, with only three years and 291 games of Major League experience under his belt, he isn’t a finished product. But he is a leader in the clubhouse, a mentor in the middle infield and, to Archer’s delight, an adult in the room for the Rays.

“He sets the tone. He sets the standard for those guys,” Cash said. “They watch how he practices. They watch how he works. … He kind of leads that group and they watch the energy that he brings, and I think those young guys know, like, ‘If I'm going to be on this field with him, I’ve got to bring the same energy he does.’”