For Willy Adames, 2021 Could Be Make or Break in Tampa

For the last three seasons, Willy Adames has been the Rays’ everyday shortstop, and he enters 2021 with that same job locked up. Tampa Bay continues to sport one of the most flexible rosters in baseball, but there’s no one on the 26-man roster currently who can handle shortstop regularly outside of him. On any other team, he could probably look forward to years of job security before he hits free agency in 2025. But on this team, Adames’ 2021 season is full of added pressure.

Adames made his major league debut in late May 2018; the month and a half he spent in the minors earned Tampa Bay an extra year of service time, which means he’ll go through his first round of salary arbitration after this season. Over his first three years in the majors, he’s been a player who’s above-average at many things but not good at any in particular, compiling a 106 wRC+ at the plate, oscillating between good and bad defensive seasons, and posting a total of 5.7 WAR. He’s a solid contributor to a team with championship aspirations. The problem is that he’s about to get a raise at exactly the wrong time.

The Rays’ blueprint for success is well known by now. Their seemingly never-ending stream of highly regarded prospects gives them ready-made replacements for players who start to price themselves out of the team’s minuscule budget. That’s part of why players like Corey Dickerson, C.J. Cron, and Tommy Pham were either traded or cut loose despite enjoying productive seasons in a Rays uniform.

That may be the fate awaiting Adames given the looming presence of the No. 1 prospect in baseball: Wander Franco, who just turned 20 the other day and whose projected ETA to the majors is 2022. But even beyond Franco, the Rays have two other middle infielders who could make an impact as soon as this year: Vidal Bruján and Taylor Walls. It’s always a good thing to stockpile talent, but the ugly side effect is players like Adames getting pushed out as soon as they get expensive.

How much will Adames make in his first year of arbitration? It’s tough to say, but we can estimate based on some of his peers at his position who have gone through the arbitration process with a similar amount of service time.

Willy Adames, arbitration peers
Player Pre-Arb Years Pre-Arb Service Time PA wRC+ WAR 1st-yr Arb Salary
Dansby Swanson 2016-19 3.047 1774 81 3.9 $3.15m
Amed Rosario 2017-20 3.062 1564 89 4.5 $2.4m
Adalberto Mondesi 2016-20 3.088 1176 81 5.8 $2.525m
Marcus Semien 2013-17 3.118 1934 96 6.0 $3.125m
Javier Báez 2014-18 3.089 1912 103 9.6 $5.2m
Trevor Story 2016-18 3.000 1626 111 9.6 $5.0m
Willy Adames 2018-21 2.105 1112 106 5.7
SOURCE: MLB Trade Rumors

Folding in Adames’ 2021 ZiPS projection gets him to 7.7 WAR during his pre-arbitration years. That puts him ahead of where Semien was heading into his first year of arbitration but behind Báez and Story. If 2020 had been a full season, though, Adames’ WAR likely would have been much closer to those latter two. We’ll have to see how arbitration panels handle the shortened season, but somewhere close to $5 million is probably a good estimate for Adames’ 2022 salary.

Based on the how Dickerson, Cron, and Pham were treated, $5 million seems to be the limit to the Rays’ tolerance for these kinds of players on the bubble. Dickerson earned $3.025 million in his first year of arbitration in 2017, which was his second year with the Rays. After a season in which he accumulated 2.6 WAR, Tampa Bay signed him to a $5.95 million contract to avoid arbitration but designated him for assignment about a month after that and traded him to the Pirates a few days later for a meager return. Cron, who was acquired from the Angels in his first year of arbitration with a salary of $2.3 million, put together a 2.2-WAR season in 2018 and was designated for assignment in November. He received a $4.8 million salary with the Twins in his second go-around in arbitration. Pham won his first arbitration case against the Rays for a salary of $4.1 million in 2019; they had filed at $3.5 million. They traded him to the Padres after the season, and he earned $7.9 million for 2020.

Tampa Bay currently has just a little over $22 million in payroll committed in 2022 with a whopping 15 players headed to arbitration. Having operated with around a $66 million payroll over the last three seasons, that leaves the Rays with a little wiggle room in their budget, but with so many other players getting raises at the same time, Adames could draw the short straw because of the depth behind him.

Complicating matters even more, Adames’ 2020 season was both highly encouraging and concerning in equal measures. He posted career bests in ISO and walk rate, leading to an excellent 124 wRC+, but his strikeout rate spiked to 36.1%, and his .388 BABIP likely isn’t repeatable. Still, he posted career highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate, backing up his sudden power outburst.

But all that added authority came with some serious red flags. More than half of the balls he put into play were pulled, a huge change in his spray chart from his prior norms. And even though pulling all those batted balls helped him unlock his power, his changing batted-ball profile also included a massive jump in infield fly balls. He made enough hard contact at the right launch angles to prop up a .421 expected wOBA on contact, a mark that sat in the 81st percentile among all batters who put at least 100 balls in play in 2020.

That shifting batted ball profile was almost certainly the result of a different approach at the plate. Adames’ overall swing rate stayed the same, but where he swung changed significantly.

In 2020, Adames attacked more pitches on the inner half of the plate, likely in an attempt to utilize his pull power more often. While he accomplished that goal, his new approach opened up significant holes in his swing, particularly on pitches on the outer half of the plate. On pitches thrown over the heart of the plate (using the Statcast-defined “attack zone”), he missed an alarming 26.1% of the time he swung. On pitches thrown on the outer half of the “heart” zone, he whiffed a third of the time. His whiff rate on pitches in the zone jumped from 18.3% to 31.2%, one of the worst rates in all of baseball last year. This kind of pull-heavy approach is usually best suited for sluggers. Adames struggling to make consistent contact in the zone exposed the considerable downside to this kind of profile. The pressure will be on to find the right balance between reducing the swinging strikes and continuing to hit for power regularly.

If Adames does thread that needle, the Rays could look to sell high on him this summer before the bonanza of free-agent shortstops hits the market next offseason. And if he plays well enough, the Rays might just be inclined to hang onto him and figure out their crowded infield some other way. Perhaps shifting Franco over to second base or moving one of Bruján or Adames over to third base would clear the way to keep both Adames and the prospects all together on the same roster. But if he isn’t able to curtail his rising strikeout rate, it makes the Rays’ decision that much easier.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Alex Gaffney
1 year ago

Very well timed post after that Wander BOMB today!

1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Gaffney

That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him swing. It was very aesthetically pleasing