After a dominant 2020, it seemed like Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe had the middle infield locked down for the Rays. But in light of the recent Willy Adames trade, it appears that Tampa Bay is ready to start looking ahead to the future. The Rays’ #7 prospect, Taylor Walls, is getting the call and should get the lion’s share of shortstop starts for the foreseeable future. But it’s likely the Rays aren’t quite done making moves around the infield.
Leading up to the Willy Adames Trade
Since his call-up in 2018, Adames has been a solid glove in the infield, as well as a usually reliable source of batting average at the plate, but not too much else. Despite having a decent eye for contact, he hasn’t been able to generate too much power with his bat and has a strikeout problem, with a career K rate just shy of 30%. 2020 was a bit of a power aberration—Adames raised his SLG over 60 points, bumping him up to a respectable 127 OPS+ and 124 wRC+.
Alongside second baseman Brandon Lowe (who dominated at the plate in 2020 to the tune of a 150 wRC+, ranking among the highest offensive second basemen in the league), Adames seemed to have turned a corner. But it seems to have been too good to be true. And indeed, there were warning signs—while Adames was able to slightly raise his walk rate in 2020, his strikeout rate was worse than ever, finishing his breakout offensive season with a strikeout rate over 36%—third highest in the league among qualified hitters.
It’s not a recipe for sustainability, and in light of his start to 2021, it seems like it might have been a lucky stretch, aided by a shortened season. His Statcast metrics from 2020 seem to support this hypothesis—Adames ranked in the bottom half of the lead in most expected stats like xWOBA (27th percentile), xBA (24th percentile), and xSLG (35 percentage). It seems through the first month and a half of 2021, the pendulum swung the other way, as through 142 plate appearances, Adames is slashing a brutal .197/.254/.371 with a 35.9% K rate. This is likely due for regression as well, as the real Adames probably lies somewhere in the middle. However, as long as he continues to struggle with strikeouts—a problem that is seeming to only get worse over his four seasons in the majors—his offensive ceiling is severely limited.
The Rays infield has been very up-and-down offensively this season, and while they find themselves just one game out of first in the AL East, it’s clear they need to make some changes. Luckily for them, they have some solid options to look to in the aftermath of the Willy Adames trade.
Following up the Willy Adames Trade
Within hours of the Willy Adames trade breaking, the Rays announced that Taylor Walls, the #7 prospect according to MLB.com, was receiving the call and would be joining the team in Dunedin for Saturday’s matchup against the Blue Jays. Walls got the start at shortstop in his major league debut yesterday, batting eighth and smacking two doubles in his first game. Barring significant struggles with adapting to major league pitching, Walls should move into an everyday role as shortstop, getting the occasional spell from versatile infielder Joey Wendle.
It’s not hard to see why Walls makes a good replacement for Adames. Walls is an elite defender and should be able to immediately fill in for Adames’ glove in the infield. It provides a high floor for the transition for the Rays, as their pitching and defense should not take a hit despite losing a solid defensive shortstop.
And while Walls will likely need some time to get used to major league pitching, his offensive floor should rank similarly to Adames. He’s traditionally kept his strikeouts in check while maintaining a high walk rate thanks to his patient approach. His impeccable eye at the plate aids his discipline as well as his contact numbers. He has elite speed (though whether that translates into stolen bases at the major league level remains to be seen) which aids in his high batting average.
The big void in his offensive game is power—since starting at low A in 2017, Walls has belted fewer than 20 home runs in his professional career over the course of over 1,200 plate appearances. With that said, he already has two in his 14 games at AAA Durham this season, so even if he can turn more singles into doubles, his offensive output will improve dramatically. That said, power should not be viewed as a guarantee or even likelihood for Walls.
Expectations should always be tempered when estimating how a minor leaguer will adjust to major league pitching. But Walls represents a safe, high floor option: elite defense and a solid hitting eye, and should prove to be an improvement over Adames for the sake of strikeouts if nothing else.
What’s Next for the Rays Infield?
As soon as the Willy Adames trade news broke, the internet was immediately abuzz with feverish speculation as to who would be replacing him. Alongside Walls, the Rays have two top-tier middle infield prospects in AAA Durham: Vidal Bruján and Wander Franco. While I don’t find it surprising that Walls got the call over Franco or Bruján, they won’t be in Durham long. It seems likely that the notoriously stingy and payroll-minded Rays are holding Franco and Bruján back for monetary and control reasons, which means they’ll probably get the green light in a month or two.
Bruján is the Rays’ #2 prospect and top 20 in all baseball. He’s been on fire to start the minor league season, leading the Durham Bulls in most offensive categories and ranking highly among the AAA-East as a whole: top 10 in OPS and tied for second in home runs. It’s a departure from most expectations for Bruján, who has been viewed as speedy, contact-first hitter at the plate (stealing over 100 bases across 2018 and 2019, with seven through 15 games in 2021). If this power development is real, it would mark a huge point in his evolution as a baseball player and turn him into a true five-tool player. It’s early in the season, but his dominance in AAA points towards him being ready now.
What’s more, Bruján has the defensive athleticism to play a variety of positions. Traditionally a second baseman, he’s gotten plenty of reps at shortstop and has spent most of 2021 playing center field for Durham. That level of positional flexibility could be huge for Tampa Bay, who frequently need middle infield help even with Walls getting the call-up in light of the Willy Adames trade. It should help Rays’ manager Kevin Cash find a way to get Bruján’s bat in the lineup once he does get the call. While Franco gets all of the hype, Bruján may end up having the immediate impact on the major league level.
Speaking of Franco, it seems likely he too will be on the major league roster before the end of the season. Baseball’s undisputed #1 prospect has not had the same dominance at AAA that he has at previous levels, but there’s little doubt that the switch hitter will be ready for major league pitching very soon if he isn’t already. Having seen him play several times this season, even his outs are impressive. Franco has elite, blinding bat speed and a top-shelf eye at the plate, resulting in good contact.
One of the biggest knocks against Franco, like Bruján, has been power. But while he’s not a slugger yet by any means, Franco is exceptional at creating hard contact which will translate more and more into power as he continues to grow and develop. It’s worth keeping in mind baseball’s top prospect is only 20 years old, and is still developing physically. His ceiling is about as high as it gets when evaluating a prospect.
Franco has typically played shortstop, but upon starting the season in Durham alongside Taylor Walls, Franco has gotten reps at short, second, and third. He’s a gifted defender but unlikely to stick at shortstop long-term, so the more he can develop this type of positional flexibility, the easier it will be to slot him onto a major league roster.
Franco has put up a respectable yet underwhelming .281/.329/.516 slash line through 15 games in Durham. It comes with an impressive 15.4% K rate, nonetheless disappointing for a hitter who has previously never struck out more than he walked. While he could likely start contributing right away at the major league level, the Rays are likely to keep him in AAA for a bit more seasoning and appearances against MLB-adjacent pitching.
The Willy Adames trade was a long time coming—rumors have abounded for awhile that the Rays were looking to move their shortstop. While fans are likely disappointed that Walls—rather than Franco or Bruján—got the nod for his replacement, it won’t be too much longer before the Rays’ star prospects get their first crack at the majors. For the Rays, the additional room for their prospects in the infield—along with the improved bullpen depth—could make the Willy Adames trade a genius move in hindsight.
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