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Major League Baseball is becoming dominated by young talent. Every year a new crop of players come into the league and show off their mouth-watering skill set. Just take a look at RotoBaller’s positional rankings, and you see players that are in their mid-20s or younger are among the top of every position.

The youth movement continued in 2018 with superstars like Ronald Acuna Jr. and teenage phenom Juan Soto turning heads. While all the rookie conversations across the MLB were mostly about these stud NL bats, there was another rookie quietly putting up a strong debut season of his own in the AL. A youngster who showed us exactly why he was a top-15 MLB prospect. Just another addition to the already over-crowded, young, elite shortstop position.

It seems like every year the money-deficient Tampa Bay Rays are in a rebuild mentality, but every year they outperform everyone’s expectations. A lot of the team’s success has to do with their knack to develop their young talent, and with Willy Adames, the case hasn’t been any different. If we dive into the 23-year old’s 2018 debut and his minor league track record, a breakout is primed and ready to occur. Let’s take a look below.

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Minor League History

Acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the summer of 2014 in the deal that sent David Price to the Motor City, Adames took the conventional path to the Major Leagues. He started in Rookie ball and made a stop at every level getting the call in May from Triple-A to the bigs. He has shown the tools at every level to be a five-category contributor for fantasy purposes. Accumulating over 600 games in the minors, Adames finished his career minor league slash line at .270/.363/.410. These numbers started small in Rookie ball and Single-A, and as he went up through the ranks, his numbers did as well. For the sake of recency, let’s focus more specifically on Double-A and Triple-A.

A positive trait uncommonly possessed by young players is the ability to draw a walk. A 10.8% BB% mark in Triple-A followed a 13.0% in Double-A, the Major League average in 2018 was 8.5%. His BABIP numbers gradually rose throughout every level with it peaking at .367 in his final half year in Triple-A. While the mark is undoubtedly high, it’s proved to be sustainable in that range due to the year to year consistency. A big part of BABIP goes hand in hand with line drive rates where Adames excelled as well. A 22.8% LD% in Triple-A chased a 24.1% in Double-A. If all these early-career metrics translate, or better yet expand to the Majors, we’re looking at a .300 bat in the future.

While Adames doesn’t possess the most power or speed of his class, he’s no slouch at these skills either. His ISO mark dropped from Double-A (.156) to Triple-A (.134), but these below-average marks shouldn’t be discouraging. Jose Altuve, for example, has a career ISO of .135 and his Cleveland Indians counterpart Fransisco Lindor never had an ISO eclipse .120 in the minors, but a bit more on him later. It’s common for most young bats to find their true power stroke once they reach the majors, and Adames has the fly ball repertoire to suggest that he will as well. Climbing to 1.04 GB/FB in his 2018 Triple-A half season from 1.19 GB/FB in Double-A, it is an encouraging leap as he’s starting to join the fly ball revolution. If the mark stayed somewhere between the two, it would provide reliable power numbers while still keeping the batting average at a high rate. Adames has also stolen double-digit bags in his last three full minor league seasons, but a 73.9% success rate in these years will need to be improved upon if he ever wants to attain 20 thefts.

 

Major League Debut

Adames was called up on May 22, and he popped a home run in his very first game against the Red Sox. But he only played the three-game series and was sent back down before getting another call up on June 11. He batted just .224 until July 12 when he was sent down yet again over the All-Star break. Returning on July 22, the Dominican was back to stay, and it was no secret why. He slashed .305/.383/.435 the rest of the way, and his OBP was the best in baseball among shortstops in that span. Adames achieved this slash line despite driving the ball into the ground more than he ever has before. His 56.8% ground-ball rate was also highest among shortstops, but his 39.7% Hard% guided these balls through the infield. His 11.0% BB% was beautiful, but we’d like to see an improvement on his high 26.8% K%.

The right-hander also hit seven long balls and stole five bases in this second half span, finishing the year with 10 and six respectively. He got caught an ugly five times, but with a bit more experience and recognition of pitchers in the league, his rates are guaranteed to increase. Statcast measured Adames’ sprint speed at 28.5 ft/sec right between Lorenzo Cain (28.6) and Fransisco Lindor (28.4). The Rays as a team led the bigs in stolen base attempts per game in 2018, so the opportunities will also come. As for the power, his .130 second-half ISO mark was respectable, especially given the high ground-ball rate. His 19.4 HR/FB buoyed his HR production a bit, but he was hitting the baseball at only a 14.9% Soft%, so anything in the air had an excellent chance to fly far.

 

2019 Projected Value

Adames spent the majority of his rookie campaign in the six spot, and if he wasn’t batting in that spot, it was between seventh and ninth. He has the profile as a top three bat in the order but fixated at two of these spots are Tommy Pham and the injury-plagued Kevin Kiermaier. It will be a situation to monitor in spring training as to who will be joining them at the top of the lineup. With Joey Wendle being Adames’ primary competition, it’s wise to think the Rays would go with the bat of their future rather than a player who came out of nowhere to debut in the majors at age 28.

At the top of the order, Adames’ Run and RBI counting stats will come into fruition. The solid walk numbers, and the above average line drive and hard hit rates will have him flirting in the .300 range, especially if he can cut down the strikeout rate. Positive regression in the GB/FB category will balance out the inflated HR/FB rate from last year, so 15 HR is a safe floor, but 20 or more certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The free-wheeling Rays will also be looking for unique ways to score runs with the losses of a couple run producing bats from last season. Expect the stolen base opportunities to come, and with a certain improvement in the success rate, a total equal to his HR output is feasible. Lindor, as mentioned above, has a similar track record that resembles Adames’ minor league numbers and his debut season. Matching the MVP candidate's first full year output of .301/15/99/78/19 is in the cards. With an ADP of 204, Adames is someone worth targeting if you miss out on those elite shortstops that get selected in the first few rounds.

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