Walls coming up to man shortstop

May 22nd, 2021

As soon as the news broke Friday afternoon that the Rays were trading shortstop Willy Adames to the Brewers, hopeful speculation swirled that the move was clearing the way for top prospect Wander Franco. But Tampa Bay general manager Erik Neander soon revealed that the club was calling up another highly regarded switch-hitting shortstop prospect from Triple-A Durham.

The Rays will call up Taylor Walls, their No. 7 prospect, to make his Major League debut on Saturday at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla. The 24-year-old is a gifted defensive infielder, leading to recognition as the Rays’ Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and ’19, and he has been swinging a hot bat in Triple-A to begin the season. Walls hit .327/.468/.490 with two homers, 13 walks and 18 strikeouts in his first 14 games while playing shortstop, second and third base.

“The defensive abilities that he has, how he's swinging the bat, [we] believe he's the right one for the opportunity that will be there as we move forward,” Neander said.

Walls will likely be the Rays’ primary shortstop when he arrives, although Joey Wendle -- who has been the club’s best hitter for the first two months of the season -- will also get some starts there while sharing time at third base with Yandy Díaz. But when the Rays call up a top prospect, they typically do so with a path to playing time available.

“I think he's going to come in and fit with our defensive mindset. He's really, really good defensively,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I know he's swung the bat well in Durham here this first month. We're excited. … He's going to play a lot. And I think we've done such a good job in the past of being really versatile, very flexible, to be able to kind of move pieces around.”

Why Walls, a third-round pick in the 2017 Draft out of Florida State University, over Franco, or even Vidal Bruján? His experience matters, as Walls played in Class A Advanced and Double-A in '19 before advancing to Triple-A this year, whereas Franco bypassed Double-A after only 52 games above Low-A in ’19. Walls also already had a spot on the Rays’ 40-man roster, while Tampa Bay would have had to clear a spot for Franco.

It’s certainly fair to assume that Franco, who started at shortstop for Durham on Friday night, may not be too far behind. But club officials have believed from the beginning of Spring Training that Walls, given his polished defense, was the most likely option to fill in as the Rays’ everyday shortstop if Adames were injured or traded early in the season. Nothing he did in Durham changed their minds.

“I think we have a lot of players there that we're excited about. I don't think that's any surprise,” Neander said. “Taylor is one that does tend to fly under the radar in a lot of those conversations, but you're talking about as good a defensive shortstop as you're going to find. You're talking about a switch-hitter that can put the ball in play, do a lot of things that help you win tight games.”

Around the horn
• With a roster of 24 players, the Rays took the field two men short against the Blue Jays on Friday night at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla. Walls and J.P. Feyereisen are expected to join the team before Saturday’s game, with Feyereisen, the reliever acquired from the Brewers in the Adames trade, telling reporters that he will “be ready to go when they need me” and wearing the No. 34 jersey previously owned by TrevorRichards, who was sent to Milwaukee.

• After optioning right-handed reliever Louis Head to Triple-A Durham on Thursday night, the Rays recalled right-hander Brent Honeywell Jr. before Friday’s game. Cash said Honeywell, who threw two innings for Durham on May 6 and one inning in relief on Tuesday, was available out of the bullpen in the series opener.

• One convenient coincidence about the Rays acquiring both Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen from the Brewers, even with the latter assigned to Triple-A? They were pregame catch partners with the Brewers, so they’ve developed an especially good relationship.

“It will be nice to have a familiar face when we first get there and be able to lean on each other a little bit through this new process,” Rasmussen told reporters. “Obviously, J.P. has been through this twice already. This is his third time. For me to be able to lean on him and get a little understanding for how this process works is going to be huge.”