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  • The Weekly: The Rise of Willy Adames

    Brent Sirvio

    People will see what they will. When one doesn't choose to make of themselves something of their own design, others will make one into what they see. This is a story of Willy Adames, as well as a growing list of discarded professional wrestlers and a dead philosopher.

    Image courtesy of © Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

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    Nobody will do it for you was the slogan emblazoned on t-shirts for DIY, the tag team of Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, two relatively small-ish professional wrestlers who languished in the independent wrestling scene and on smaller promotions until opening eyes in a NXT/WWE cruiserweight tournament match in 2016. The two became adept sparring and training partners, fast friends and learned to work remarkably well together in the ring, alongside and against each other.

    Simply put, the two knew how to put on a show; and when audience reaction turned into a grassroots movement behind them -- not unlike the ascendance of Bryan Danielson, in WWE as Daniel Bryan -- they got a run at the tag team championships, which led to their break-up, one of the great storytelling feuds in recent pro wrestling memory and some memorable singles title runs as well. (Ciampa is billed as from Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- where his wife is from and where they were about to put down roots before his wrestling career took off.)

    This runs counter to what happens in pro wrestling by way of Vince McMahon's 'sports entertainment': a character is packaged -- name, music, gimmick, background -- with little to no input from the person portraying said character, and then future endeavor'd, internet wrestling parlance for fired, when the character isn't a hit with the crowds and doesn't sell merchandise. For every Cody Rhodes, who is decidedly a unicorn in this era,  there are countless others who get chewed up and spit out. (Poor Pete Dunne.)

    What does any of this have to do with Willy Adames?

    Adames was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2012. While many saw his promise and potential, they perceived him as John Hick's blind men from his pluralistic hypothesis of religion: each feeling a different part of an elephant but unable to understand it as a whole because they could not comprehend that they were each observing the same thing. 

    Now, Hick's thought experiment within the realms of philosophy and religion is problematic for any number of reasons, but it would appear that those who observed Adames had no idea who he could be.

    Then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, no stranger to having no idea what unfinished projects could be, said little more about trading Adames, as part of a package for Tampa Bay Rays pitcher and Cy Young Award winner David Price, than "This guy is a real good young player." No, really, that's almost the full extent of it. Adames was the #3 prospect in the Tigers system. He was also only 18 years old with two years of developmental and minor league ball under his belt.

    Adames moved into the Rays organization and continued his ascent, though who and what he was remained a mystery. Mike Rosenbaum at Bleacher Report had Adames as the Rays' #1 prospect in 2015, noting his potentially "impact" bat and plus defense at short thanks to "athleticism and instincts", but his "average range" and an eventual drop in speed would force a move to third base.

    Rich Wilson at Prospect361.com listed Adames as the Rays' sixth-best prospect in 2016. Adames was a "prototypical" shortstop, but missing power, expecting 8-12 home runs a season and generally struggling with major league pitching. Then again, Wilson had Casey Gillaspie ranked ahead of Adames (and loved him), along with Taylor Guerrieri, Garrett Whitley, Brent Honeywell and Blake Snell. There's a reason you've only heard of two of those guys, and, I suppose, a reason you've never heard of Rich Wilson.

    MLB Pipeline had Adames as the sixth-best shortstop prospect in baseball in 2018, in with Fernando Tatis, Jr., Bo Bichette, Royce Lewis and Brendan Rodgers. Sources told Rays beat writer Bill Chastain at that time that Adames' future might be at third, due to "average speed", though Rays farm director (and one-time Appleton Fox) Mitch Lukevics insisted that Adames would be a starting MLB shortstop.

    No less than Keith Law saw Adames as someone only keeping shortstop warm for someone else. In his 2018 Top 100 list at ESPN, Adames, the 20th ranked prospect, looked "like someone who'll eventually be bumped to another position by a plus defender who can offer more range and agility", also suspecting an eventual move to the hot corner.

    Rays prospects writer Mat Germain, writing at DRays Bay, had Adames at #1 in 2018. Writing more in aggregate for the DRB team and from other sources, Germain keeps Adames at shortstop. Though he keeps the door open to a potential move to third, Germain does not relegate or assume a move as others did.

    Here, though, Germain picks up on what was missed by almost everyone else: character. Less is said about Adames' skill and ability -- though a comp to Francisco Lindor is certainly flattering, as is noting that his early performance outshined the Yankees' Gleyber Torres -- than about who the kid is. Quoting Lukevics and others, much is made of Willy Adames, the man as opposed to the disparate components within a flesh casing, or parts of an elephant rather than the pachyderm itself.

    And this is where scouting reports, writers covering prospects, sabermetricians and general seamhead wonks so often get things wrong. These are people, and a person's talent is beholden exclusively to that person. Someone can have all the talent in the world, but the person has to embrace it. For every Bryce Harper, and even Harper can be maddeningly inconsistent, there are Josh Hamiltons, Nick Franklins and countless more we've not heard of. Willy Adames, from day one in the Tigers system, to his first day in the Rays' organization, to knocking at the door of the parent club, to entering The Show itself, worked at his craft.

    That willingness to accept coaching and criticism and work at it doesn't sell well, which I suspect is part of the reason Adames kept finding himself creeping toward the top of these prospect lists, only to be consistently obscured by some other, readily-packaged, readily-marketable young talent, from Fernando Tatis to Wander Franco. This is not to suggest that any of these other guys don't work at it, it's just that it's easier to market hype than hope.

    Each of those writers missed something in particular about Adames' ability, but they all missed on who Adames is, a man who sees himself as a constant work in progress. After Sunday, Adames is in the top-third in Baseball in sprint speed. Nothing about his game in the field suggests an eventual move to another position. His expected slugging, xwOBA and barrels are among the game's best per Statcast. He is a likely 20-20-20 candidate for the foreseeable future. Adames stepped in and became the Brewers' clubhouse leader and presence this roster needed a year ago, and he is the heart and soul of the team now.

    Some people come into whatever it is they do and hit the ground running, and those people are notable, exceptional. But there are also the Tommaso Ciampas, the Johnny Garganos, the Bryan Danielsons, the Willy Adameses(!), those who grind and refuse to settle for anything less than better than before, those guys become something more than exceptional.

    They become respected. They become irreplaceable. And often, they also become legends.


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