It was the Futures Game, featuring the top prospects in baseball representing their parent clubs, and lefty C.J. Riefenhauser was there representing the Rays. But it was impossible for him not to feel out of place. The reason was simple: he was no prospect and he never will be. Riefenhauser was a 20th round draft pick back in 2010, and the Rays converted him to relief at Double-A knowing his stuff wasn’t good enough to start. But once Riefenhauser took the mound, he looked as good as any pitcher in the contest. Riefenhauser used just 6 pitches, each one a strike, to retire the World Team in order. He had defied the odds once again.
From the moment C.J. Riefenhauser entered pro ball, it was clear that he wasn’t your typical 20th rounder. But he wasn’t a Matt or a Desmond Jennings who simply slipped through the cracks–you really couldn’t pinpoint what was so special about him. His fastball was often in just the high-80’s when he was starting games, and his curveball was a decent pitch but nothing more. Yet season after season, he accelerated through the minor leagues. After working his way from Advanced Rookie Princeton to Bowling Green in his 2010 pro debut, he had a marvelous season between Low-A and High-A in 2011, going 7-8 with a 2.80 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 25 starts, a relief appearance, and 138.1 innings pitched. His ERA slipped to just 4.55 in 2012, but he made it from High-A to Double-A after he was converted to relief. And now this season, he managed a 0.51 ERA and a 48-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 34 appearances and 53 innings pitched to earn the call to Triple-A, where he has managed a 2.57 ERA in his first 4 appearances. Suddenly he’s on the cusp of the major leagues.
Riefenhauser’s stuff has certainly improved over the years. His stuff has seen an uptick out of the bullpen, touching as high as 93 MPH, and while he doesn’t do a great job commanding it, its late movement helps him force weak contact. His curveball features big downward break and is his best swing-and-miss offering, especially to left-handed hitters. And while his changeup is still coming along, he has made major strides with it, finally giving him a weapon with which to attack opposite-side batters. Riefenhauser’s upside still isn’t too exciting–a situational lefty that isn’t totally helpless against righties. But as hitters at higher and higher levels can’t seem to beat him, the likelihood of Riefenhauser having a future in that role seems to be getting higher and higher. And once Riefenhauser finally does arrive in the major leagues, maybe he’ll be able to do what he has done everywhere in the minor leagues just one more time and exceed expectations once again.