What is it like to insert a first-round draft pick into a first-place team mid-season? Well when there are already three first-round draft picks on the squad, it makes the transition pretty smooth.
Richie Shaffer, the Rays' first selection in June's draft at 25th overall, made his professional debut for the Hudson Valley Renegades last Monday. Shaffer joins Justin O'Conner (2010 supplemental round), Taylor Guerrieri (2011) and Jeff Ames (2011 supplemental round) as first-round picks on the Hudson Valley roster.
Shaffer is a third baseman out of Clemson University and was widely regarded as one of the best college bats in the 2012 draft. He signed with the Rays on July 13 for a reported $1.71 million bonus and reported to Hudson Valley soon after. However, he is being eased in to playing again, as the last live baseball he saw before Monday was when Clemson was eliminated in the NCAA Regional on June 3.
The 21-year-old has appeared in five games so far, going 5-for-16. His debut started with a called strike three, but he poked a single in his second at-bat and played third for five innings. In his second game on Tueday, he had two RBI on a single and a sacrifice fly as the designated hitter. Shaffer's first game came over week after his arrival, and he still could be waiting until this weekend to become an every-day player.
"They're just trying to make sure they don't toss me out into the wild," Shaffer said. "I understand but I feel great, I've been working hard and they've been trying to get me in shape and everything, so I'm ready to go."
The first-round pick also downplayed the possibility of the layoff affecting his game, saying it would take just a short period to get timing at the plate back.
"No, just real small things," he said. "Just the split-second decision of picking up breaking balls and just the tiny timing issues, nothing major. It's more like just a little breather for my legs, really.
Shaffer is eager to play but not impatient; he understands that getting back to playing condition is a process that takes time and he has maintained his positive attitude.
"It's great to be back playing, getting back out on the field and getting that game speed back up. It's an awesome feeling; I've been waiting a while to play and I'm finally getting that opportunity. It's been a blast so far… You're getting paid to do what you love, how can you complain?"
In his final season at Clemson, Shaffer had a .336/.480/.573 line with 10 home runs, 46 RBI and 63 walks, earning him his reputation for power. Although he has only had two games in pro baseball, the newcomer has still shown a special hitting ability in batting practice. Before Wednesday's game against New York-Penn League-leading Tri-City, the ValleyCats players stopped what they were doing to watch Shaffer, who responded by ripping ball after ball after ball to the warning track.
"He's miss-hitting balls hitting them out of the ballpark," Renegades manager Jared Sandberg said.
Shaffer started as a first-baseman at Clemson, but eventually was moved to third. With the Rays being set at third base with Even Longoria, there has been speculation of a plan to play Shaffer at first base or a corner outfield spot. However, neither Sandberg nor Shaffer gave any indication he would play anywhere other than third in Hudson Valley, and Shaffer said he would prefer to be at third every day. Sandberg said it is too early to make any speculation like that, and that right now is a time to see what he can do at this level. And from what Sandberg has seen so far, Shaffer does not disappoint.
"On the field, he's the real deal," Sandberg said. "Look at a first-round pick, and he's got the look and he's got the tools to go along with it. He's got the arm, the glove and the bat. The power potential there… he's going to be a fun player to watch."
By all accounts, Shaffer is just as impressive off the field as he is on it.
"He's a really good kid," Sandberg said of the newest Renegade, "he's got a good head on his shoulders, he's a hard worker. He shows a lot of respect, not only for the coaching staff but his teammates. He knows he came here late so he's kind of feeling his way through and not step on anyone's toes."
Shaffer's attitude and demeanor has helped to make the transition into a new team that has already established a strong chemistry as easy as possible.
"I'm just trying to be really respectful and try to pay my dues," he said, "and not come in here and expect anything right away, and work hard and just try to gain everyone's respect on the field."
Despite being a first-round draft pick, fan attention in Hudson Valley has still taken the humble Shaffer by surprise.
"I try to make sure I sign autographs all the time," Shaffer said, "because these little kids look up to you and it's pretty cool when you've got a bunch of kids asking to write your name on a piece of paper or ball or something. It's like, I'm just a guy, you know. So that never really gets old."
Shaffer may take another game off and play seven innings in another before he starts playing a full-time third base, and as time goes on his focus in workouts will become more specific. But for now, the first- round pick from last month is simply trying to get his feet under him in professional baseball.
"Just trying to get back in the swing of things and just kind of picking the coaches' brains and getting little tidbits of information from everyone," Shaffer said. "And get my feet back working over at third and getting my swing plane back to consistently where it needs to be every pitch. So just the little tiny details of baseball, that's all."
Eric Vander Voort is the Hudson Valley beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @ecvandervoort.
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