Shafer Strong in New Role

Aaron Shafer wasn't quite sure what to think when the Chicago Cubs told him he'd be in the bullpen for the start of the 2010 season. That's only fair for a high-round 2008 draft pick who didn't envision himself in a relief role less than two years into his pro career.

When Shafer was taken in the second round from Wichita State, there was little doubt that the Cubs saw him as a starter for the future. A durable arm as a starter throughout his prep and collegiate careers, he had never pitched with much frequency in the bullpen.

The right-hander began his pro career at short-season Boise in 2008 by making seven starts and then followed that up last season with 24 starts for Class Low-A Peoria. Shafer finished with 11 wins and a 4.49 ERA in 116 1/3 innings, but in spring training this year, he found himself on the outside looking in for a spot in one of the Cubs' low-level minor league rotations.

"I came into the office and was like, ‘Is there a reason I'm throwing two innings every three days? What's going on?'" recalled Shafer. "I just wanted to know because I was getting the feeling I was becoming a reliever and that nobody was telling me.

"I finally just went in and asked, and [the Cubs said], ‘We see you fitting in here as a reliever and we're going to try it out.' And I was like, ‘OK, well, nice to know,' and that's kind of how it went down. It was basically a one-second conversation."

Shafer admits he wasn't exactly overcome with joy by the announcement.

"It's one of those things where you kind of feel like you're not a prospect anymore," Shafer said. "That's kind of the way it makes it feel, because almost all the big league guys, whether they're starters or not, they're starters in the minor leagues it seems like. For me, it was strange because I'd never been a reliever in my life."

But he soon overcame his initial feelings of discourse about the move and has become one of the most effective relievers in the Florida State League this season for Class High-A Daytona.

Shafer has a 1.18 ERA through the first two months. He has 39 strikeouts to nine walks in 38 innings, and only recently did his ERA climb above 1.00 after beginning the season with no earned runs allowed in his first eight games.

Opponents are batting just .165 off Shafer, who has thrown two innings or more in 12 of his 16 appearances.

"I was a little upset at first, but it wasn't like I went home and thought about quitting or anything. I was just a little bit off-set. I didn't know what to think about it," he said. "But when I did it in spring training, I was pretty good at it. And I said, ‘I can't sit here and live in the past. I've just got to play and get better and get outs.'"

Along the way, he took some solace in the words of friend and established St. Louis Cardinals reliever Kyle McClellan, who both hail from Missouri.

"He called me and said it was the quickest way to the big leagues and to just go out there and get your outs, and you'll get pushed along faster," Shafer recalled. "He said to not get down on anything, just keep going. He was really great for me."

Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita said the organization is focused on getting all of their young arms some work, whether it be starting or relieving.

"We have a lot of starting pitchers, and someone had to go to the bullpen," he said. "He's done a good job and has pitched multiple innings allowing him to get his work in."

What has helped make Shafer, who sits 88-90 mph with his fastball, a solid force out of the bullpen is that he hasn't taken anything out of his original arsenal. Whereas many relievers need or use just two pitches to get by, Shafer professes to throw up to five – the same amount he threw as a starter.

That gives him an advantage, he says, because it keeps hitters off-balance.

"In a short stint of time, when they legitimately can't sit on anything, I feel like I'm unlike any reliever in that sense," Shafer said. "I might throw my two-seam fastball, my cutter, a changeup, or a curveball my first pitch. They don't know what I'm going to throw, and I'm around the zone a lot. I feel like I've been throwing strikes a lot early in the counts and getting ahead of guys.

"I can be 2-2 with a guy and he still hasn't seen two of my pitches, so I have a lot of things to go to and a lot of things to keep in my head. That's what I attribute to my success so far."

He says it has been a fun transition so far, but that he doesn't feel as though he has to prove himself more to the Cubs than in the past, nor does he hold a grudge against the organization for sending him to the bullpen.

The way Shafer sees it, he and the Cubs are in this journey together.

"My goal is to prove the Cubs right, because if they're right and my value goes up and things start happening for me, then we both win," he said. "They're winning, they were right, and I'm winning because I'm moving up. So we're in this together, you know.

Away from the ballpark, Shafer enjoys singing and playing guitar. He recently played a set at a nearby club in Daytona after becoming friends with the club's manager.

According to Shafer, music is a great way to take your mind off things once you've left the ballpark.

"Baseball is a sport that is notoriously over-thought," he said. "When you over-think the game, it only gets harder. Anytime I think a guy has something he can go to and just leave it alone [it's good for him.]

"Sometimes the best way to figure something out is to just leave it alone. I can do that and come unwind and get mad at the guitar, and figure out how to play a song. That just takes my mind off it. It's something to be frustrated with other than baseball."

Northsiders Report Top Stories