Willy Adames is Headed to Milwaukee

Since before the start of the season, the Rays have telegraphed their willingness to move Willy Adames. It wasn’t so much in what they said — in that they didn’t say much of anything — but two factors made it a nearly foregone conclusion. First, the Rays are *loaded* at shortstop in the upper minors. Second, the Rays don’t compete by letting surplus talent rot on the vine. Adames will be eligible for arbitration after this year, so his presence on the major league roster blocked those cheaper minor leaguers.

It was just a matter of getting past the Super-Two deadline and some team meeting their asking price. On Friday, both of those factors lined up: the Rays have traded Adames and Trevor Richards to the Brewers in exchange for Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen, as MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand first reported.

The Brewers need a shortstop badly. They’re 21–22 so far this year, four games back in the NL Central, and lackluster performance at shortstop has held them back. Luis Urías is an intriguing talent, but he’s hitting .221/.313/.327 since joining Milwaukee last year, good for a measly 78 wRC+. He’s also stretched defensively at the position: He’s a natural second baseman playing shortstop to accommodate first Keston Hiura and now Kolten Wong.

Urías is talented enough that it would feel weird to trade for a shortstop only to stash him on the bench, but that won’t be the case in Milwaukee. Adding Adames will set off a cascade of moves that should help bandage the team’s dicey infield defense. Though Urías is a natural second baseman, he can also play third, where Travis Shaw currently starts. That lets Shaw move over to first base, where Hiura’s slow start and eventual demotion has created yet another hole.

This multi-position rearrangement works because of Adames. He’s off to a slow start offensively this year, and his 35.9% strikeout rate continues a recent worrisome trend, but he’s a better defensive shortstop than Urías, and given the infield’s overall offensive struggles, it’s hard to fault the Brewers for choosing defense. With the exception of Wong, Adames’s batting line fits right in:

Brewers Infield Options
Player K% BB% BABIP OBP SLG wRC+
Willy Adames 35.9% 7.0% .276 .254 .371 78
Keston Hiura 36.0% 6.7% .239 .247 .266 47
Daniel Vogelbach 21.7% 13.2% .242 .311 .348 84
Kolten Wong 14.4% 8.3% .309 .348 .402 108
Luis Urías 25.0% 13.6% .250 .317 .359 87
Travis Shaw 26.0% 9.1% .258 .292 .372 85

It’s a gruesome unit in the aggregate, and Adames almost has to help; even if he doesn’t start hitting better, you’ll hardly be surprised to know that having him play defense instead of Vogelbach increases the defensive capability of the unit as a whole. The team will still be able to run out a lefty-heavy lineup with Shaw and Vogelbach at the infield corners when they want offense, but I expect the defense-first unit to get a fair bit of playing time.

For this trade to work, though, Adames can’t keep hitting the way he has this year. He struck out quite a bit last year (36.1%) but still put up a solid offensive line thanks to a .388 BABIP and good power numbers: 15 doubles and eight homers in only 205 plate appearances. That didn’t feel sustainable, obviously, but neither does this year’s rough performance feel representative of his true talent.

Adames has been extremely aggressive so far this year, swinging at a career-high rate in every zone. He’s also become a low-contact hitter: After putting up roughly league-average contact metrics until last year, he faded in a big way. Since the start of 2020, he’s made contact on only 63.2% of his swings, the fifth-worst mark in the majors. That’s Javier Baez (or, sadly, Keston Hiura) territory, which helps explain why his strikeouts went from elevated to ghastly.

As is so often the case, this change hasn’t happened in isolation. As he’s missed more often, he’s also done more damage when he connects. His barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and expected slugging rate are all at career highs this year, and he’s hitting a staggering 69.1% of his batted balls in the air, a top-ten mark in the majors.

How did he turn into a feast-or-famine (and mostly famine this year) slugger? You might think it’s his cartoonish, Wario-esque leg kick, which he showed here in taking Taylor Hearn out of the park:

Seriously, look how high his leg is with the ball already out of Hearn’s hand:

Just one problem: that’s not a new development. Here’s a 2019 home run:

But it hasn’t always been the case. Here’s his first major league home run, off of Chris Sale in 2018:

Maybe it’s the leg kick. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, his current power output isn’t making up for his 19.4% swinging-strike rate. The Brewers surely hope he’ll be able to get back to his earlier contact and batted ball profile, and hey, as mentioned, there’s hardly a high offensive bar to clear in Milwaukee.

In Tampa, on the other hand, shortstop was getting crowded. Wander Franco, the best prospect in the game, is hitting well at Triple-A Durham. Vidal Brujan, who we project as more of a second baseman but who can handle short in a pinch, is off to a torrid .333/.429/.650 start. Taylor Walls is the best of the bunch defensively, and he’s also swinging a hot bat in Durham. He’ll get the first crack at it; the Rays have already called him up in the wake of the trade.

More importantly from their perspective, the bullpen cupboard was getting bare. The Rays have an entire team of pitchers on the IL: Chris Archer, Yonny Chirinos, Luis Patiño, Michael Wacha, Nick Anderson, Jalen Beeks, Oliver Drake, Chris Mazza, Colin Poche, Cody Reed, and Chaz Roe are all out of commission at the moment. Some of those injuries happened last year, but the point remains: they’re struggling to cobble together enough innings.

It’s not so much a quality issue: Tampa Bay is still among the best ten teams in the league in pitching WAR. It’s more of a quantity issue; at some point, there simply aren’t enough bodies to fill out a major league roster, particularly given that only one of their five starters is averaging six innings per start — Tyler Glasnow, naturally enough.

Feyereisen and Rasmussen will reinforce the Tampa bullpen with more of what it’s become known for: an endless pile of swings and misses. Feyereisen, a former Yankees farmhand whom the Brewers acquired in 2019, has a 16.8% swinging-strike rate since debuting in 2020. He picked up a new changeup in the offseason, and it’s been nearly unhittable: Batters are coming up empty on 60% of their swings against it.

That aside, he’s a classic reliever archetype: a riding four-seamer that batters swing under, paired with a slider he throws in the mid 80s. He’s struggled with control so far this year, walking 14.3% of opposing batters, but he absolutely has the stuff to succeed; it’s just a matter of hitting the zone to set up either a slider or changeup to end things.

Rasmussen, meanwhile, has always felt like a Rays pitcher. He started in the minors but pitched a limited workload in those starts, largely due to his checkered injury history. He sits in the upper 90s and can touch 100 with his fastball, though it doesn’t have the plus ride that makes Feyereisen’s version of the pitch play up. He complements that with a slider (and two rarely-seen offerings, a curve and changeup).

Like Feyereisen, Rasmussen has struggled with his command of late. In his brief major league career, he’s walked 14.2% of opposing batters, though he’s struck out an impressive 31.1%. He has all the tools — if he can harness them. His short-stint starts also fit perfectly with Tampa Bay, a team that uses that strategy to great effect. Both Rasmussen and Feyereisen could be workhorses — or they might never throw enough strikes to make it work.

Though Adames was the headliner of the deal, the two sides agreed that he wasn’t *quite* worth Feyereisen and Rasmussen on his own. So the Rays threw in Richards, a swingman they acquired as part of the Nick Anderson deal in 2019, to complete the trade. Richards never found a consistent role in Tampa: he started a little, relieved a little, and generally papered over whatever cracks the team had in its ever-shifting pitching plans.

Unlike the two arms leaving Milwaukee, Richards doesn’t blow opponents away with his fastball. He sat around 90 mph as a starter, though he’s added a few ticks of velocity in a multi-inning relief role this year. His best pitch might be a diving changeup that he throws 30% of the time. With the Brewers losing two relief arms as part of this trade, they too were getting stretched there — Justin Topa, Bobby Wahl, and Eric Yardley are all on the IL at the moment — so getting a reliever that Tampa Bay no longer planned to use squared the trade up for everyone.

This trade makes a lot of sense, in my eyes, for both teams. The Brewers needed to do something about their infield, because their current configuration wasn’t working. Adames could use a change of scenery, but even if he doesn’t pick it up at the plate, he’s very likely a better defender than Urías, and the knock-on effects across the infield are useful as well.

The Rays needed more pitching, and they also needed to move Adames. They simply have too many minor leaguers coming up, and they weren’t going to pay him in arbitration. They surely wish they could have cashed him in when he wasn’t slumping, but they’re getting what they need, right this minute, in two bullpen arms, and with Walls filling in, they might not lose anything at shortstop either. Overall, this is a workmanlike trade for both sides, one that fixes issues across the board without undue risk by either team.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

So the critical piece of information that I didn’t see mentioned–maybe it’s in there, and I missed it–is that Willy Adames has had absolutely brutal home-road splits. He can’t hit at all in Tampa Bay and it’s been like this since 2019. Someone previously pointed out to me that he has had some serious vision problems with glare in his home stadium. If this is really the issue, then moving to a new stadium could fix him. If the Brewers get him playing to his ZiPs projection–which looks a bit like Adames’ 2019–then you have a 3-win player even while running a low OBP simply because it’s hard to find competent defenders at shortstops. That seems entirely plausible to me, and so it seems like a good gamble.

It’s mostly a good gamble because, despite the interesting stuff with JP Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen (who, btw, was actually drafted by the Rays previously, so if he seems like a Rays guy that’s because he almost was) neither of them are particularly good at throwing strikes. The Rays and Brewers both love guys like this–the Pete Fairbanks / Ray Black archetype–but they’re not particularly consistent. You have to be an absolute monster with getting swings and misses for the whole package to work. It’s still a decent deal for the Rays in the present context because Adames doesn’t have a ton of value right now and wasn’t going to improve his stock playing half his games in Tampa. Feyereisen is probably not a super high-leverage guy but he’s least a middle relief arm. That’s something.

MikeD
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MikeD

His home-road splits are startling. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it. He can’t hit at home, and is an All-Star on the road. It’s over multiple seasons. It’s not SSS theater. Milwaukee picked up a star if he hits like he did on the road.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Willy Adames, until yesterday, was my favorite example of why the MLB trade market is wildly inefficient. Because Willy Adames, apparently because of his eyesight, cannot hit at all in the Rays’ home ballpark. He is the textbook definition of a player who (probably) has more value to a team other than them because he will literally perform better anywhere else. If the MLB trade market was efficient he would have changed addresses this offseason. But for whatever reason–the Rays being stubborn is most likely, although why is a mystery–he stayed put.

I’m going to need a new best example of this. Dominic Smith, Pete Alonso, and JD Davis all being on the same team without a DH is probably the next-best one, because for whatever reason teams don’t want to trade any prospect of value for a first baseman unless they’re 2018 Paul Goldschmidt. Despite all of the hype about baseball becoming more economics-oriented and looking for value almost every team has stubborn tendencies because they’re outside of their game plan. The Rays are no exception, and in fact may be even more stubborn than the average.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

All that said, I have a hard time believing that he’s really going to light up like he did on the road once he leaves the Rays. He has a .384 BABIP on the road. But if he’s a league-average hitter, which seems totally plausible if you deflate that BABIP number / look at his projections. And that would be a very good deal for the Brewers.

Dawson Highland
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Dawson Highland

Re: vision problems in the Trop, check out this TB Times article from last year: https://www.tampabay.com/sports/rays/2020/09/11/rays-willy-adames-trying-glasses-to-boost-home-numbers/

sogoodlooking
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sogoodlooking

Makes me wonder if the Rays aren’t finagling their park and building a pitching staff around it, where the cost is a guy like Adames who can’t adjust to the induced glare.

szakyl
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szakyl

Replied to the wrong comment.

sogoodlooking
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sogoodlooking

Well, we know Adames isn’t going to maintain his .384 road BABIP, accumulated in about one season worth of PA (632, to be exact). He profiles as a hitter much more like his home BABIP of .297, in 622 PA.

My bet is that he’s much more the player we see at home, and that he has simply had an awful lot of luck in one season of PA on the road.

tbwhite67
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tbwhite67

But his 1st Half/2nd Half splits are almost as extreme as his Home/Away, do you really think he’s also genuinely a much better player from mid-July on?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Not nearly as big–it’s 76 to 130 vs 89 to 119. That’s a gap of 30 vs 54!

Furthermore, the Brewers play 50% of their games in the first half of the season and 50% of their games in the second half of the season (just like the Rays), as opposed to something like 0% of their games at the Trop vs 100% of their games not at the Trop (unlike the Rays). So if this is real, it shouldn’t affect his performance going from one team to the next.

And even beyond that, if this is true, then the Brewers got a steal at least partly because they traded for Adames before he hit the mid-year break.

This is before we address whether it is real or not. Do you have a theory why this could be true? Adames is on record saying he can’t see the ball at the Trop. Could be interesting, although you’d have to find a way to show that it isn’t being thrown off by him being called up after certain super two deadlines, missing time for injury, general seasonality effects because of temperature, etc.

tbwhite67
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tbwhite67

I do not have a theory why he would actually be a better player in the 2nd Half, and I do not believe it is true. That is my point. Despite a seemingly large sample size, this large probably random disparity exists. The most likely explanation for the home/road difference is that it is just noise too. It’s great that he says the can’t see the ball in TB, but did he arrive there saying that, or did he start saying that AFTER he had been struggling for a while. This all sounds like small sample size storytime to me.

Slappytheclown
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Slappytheclown

The park is the issue. When I go to the stadium I cannot pick up the ball either and after awhile the glare begins to give me a headache. Could be certain eye types? I don’t know why but I believe it and I’m sure he’ll be much better off somewhere else.