The Tampa Bay Rays recalled prospect Richie Shaffer yesterday for the September stretch run. This is his second go at the American League: he played eight games in early August during a roster squeeze and held his own, going 5-for-20 with two homers to open his big league career. He went back to the minors a couple of weeks ago but with the farm season at an end it is time to extend the trial.
Shaffer was a college star at Clemson University, hitting .325/.449/.562 from 2010 through 2012 including a .336/.480/.573 junior season. He was considered one of the most advanced bats in the '12 draft class; selected in the first round, 25th overall, he opened his pro career with a fine .308/.406/.487 run through the New York-Penn League. His glove at third base was considered just adequate, but his combination of pure hitting skills, plate discipline, and power was expected to get him to the majors quickly.
Alas, 2013 did not go so well: he hit .254/.308/.399 for Charlotte in the Florida State League, his wRC+ coming out a hair under league norms at 99. Yes, the FSL is tough for hitting but as an advanced college bat he was supposed to handle that level. His strike zone judgment, considered one of his best attributes in college, went backwards and his BB/K was an unimpressive 35/106. He also struggled at times on defense and his stock was down considerably with some FSL observers.
Moved up to Double-A Montgomery for 2014, Shaffer saw another decline in batting average, hitting .222/.318/.440. On the surface that looks bad and some experts almost wrote him off completely. However, despite the weak average his production in context was actually an improvement over 2013: he moved his wRC+ up to 112 thanks to gains in patience and isolated power; 19 homers stood out as a positive and seven of those homers came in August as he finished with a flourish.
Shaffer opened 2015 with Montgomery again but a good start (.262/.362/.470) saw him promoted to Triple-A Durham after 39 games. He played 69 more contests for the Bulls with a .270/.355/.582 line; overall on the season he's at .267/.357/.539 with 26 homers, 54 walks, and 123 strikeouts in 393 combined at-bats.
So what happened here? Shaffer had trouble finding a consistent approach with his swing in 2013 and early 2014, tinkering too much when he got off to a cold start and getting away from the philosophy he used in college. He went back to his old swing midway through the '14 season, finished strong (he hit .273/.398/.591 last August) and has maintained the momentum this year.
He isn't a butcher at third but is likely better-suited for first base in the long run. He can also play corner outfield in an emergency. Depending on how the Rays deploy him he could have multi-positional fantasy value.
My guess is that Shaffer will continue to hit; don't expect him to bat .300 at this point but he can probably hit .250-.260 with above-average power right now. He also seems like the type of player who could have a classic performance spike in his late 20s, a season or two where he hits for a high average as well as for power. He's 24 right now and it should not be a surprise if he has some really good campaigns in 2017-2019.
Shaffer has proven he can overcome adversity and make needed changes. You can't overestimate how important that is.