DURHAM — Jared Sandberg is a realist.
The Durham Bulls manager was an infield prospect 17 years ago, paying his dues in Durham and waiting for a shot at the Major Leagues in Tampa. Aubrey Huff and Russ Johnson were both ahead of him, playing third base for the Rays and blocking his path to the bigs.
Eventually, however, Sandberg got the midseason call and began his Major League career.
So he knows not to get too attached to Willy Adames.
“He’s an incredible talent,” Sandberg said. “I had one manager tell me the other day, ‘That guy’s a Major League All-Star.’”
Adames has already played on MLB’s All-Star Weekend. He was chosen for the Futures Game, which showcases the top prospects in baseball, two days before the All-Star Game. That earned him a trip to San Diego’s Petco Park in 2016.
Last year, Adames was named MVP of the National Champion Bulls, getting more hits, total bases and doubles than any other shortstop in the league and getting named an International League All-Star.
This year, he opened the season as the No. 2 prospect in the Tampa system and No. 22 overall in the entire minor leagues. He hit .364 with two home runs and six RBI in 10 spring training games with Tampa, showing that he was able to play second base as well as shortstop.
It’s the third straight year he’s hit .300 or better for the big club in spring training and the second time that he’s had an OPS over 1.000.
It was clear from the start of last season that Adames was destined for the big leagues. This year, there’s been an invisible countdown clock trailing him since opening day. The call-up is coming. It’s just a question of when.
On the other hand, Adames thought the same thing at the start of last season. He’d skyrocketed through the Rays system. When he hit Triple-A, however, things didn’t come as easily as they had in the lower levels.
“Last year, the first two months, I was struggling,” he admitted. “When you get to Triple-A, you know that you’re one step closer to getting what you’ve always wanted. You get that in your mind, and you’re not going to be able to do it.”
Adames hit .210 in April of 2017 and .245 in May and was a little lost in the field as well.
“I had to get more mature mentally,” he said. “It helped me because now I know what I have to do when I’m slumping. I know what I have to do to get better, both at the plate and in the field.”
After the slow start, Adames hit .334 the rest of the way. This year, he’s taken another step forward. One week into May, he leads the team in RBI (19), hits (30), triples (2) and runs (17). His .300 average and three homers are second on the team.
He’s also shown a flair for the dramatic. On April 22, Adames hit a grand slam off the snorting “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign in left field, earning a $250 dinner at the Angus Barn. He’s the first Durham player to accomplish that feat in five years.
The following day, Adames became the first Bull of the Triple-A era to hit for the cycle. The back-to-back performances were the high point of a nine-game hit streak over which Adames hit .485.
“For him to get off to the good start like he is right now, the month of April and turning the corner into May, I’m pleased,” Sandberg said. “Because last year, we weren’t in the same boat.”
Sandberg pointed out that Adames was just 21 years old last season, “one of the youngest kids in the league.” This year, in his second trip around the league, his maturity is evident.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Sandberg said. “He’s playing well on both offense and defense — letting the game come to him and taking advantage of all the opportunities he’s had. For him to hit for power and get on base like he’s done, he has the ability to be a middle-of-the-order big-league bat. Hopefully, he gets a shot soon.”
It’s easy for Sandberg to say that, but Adames is doing his best to keep it out of his mind.
“I’m just working my routine every day,” he said, “trying not to think about that. I’ll just let that time come. When it comes, it comes.”
And it could be coming any day now.
“Willy has proven he’s ready to go up and make that next step,” Sandberg said.