The same story happens dozens of times a year in the minor leagues. There is a player who was a middle rounds pick who delivers at outstanding season at A-ball, promptting his team to keep him in a starting role at the next level despite just mediocre stuff. Unsurprisingly, that player struggles and then is shifted to the bullpen. The question, then, is what happens next. Almost every 20th round pick was 20th round picks for a reason, and falters as he moves up to the professional ladder. But there are always the exceptions: the player whose stuff suddenly sees an uptick and the pitcher who thrives out of the bullpen. In C.J. Riefenhauser, the Rays have a prime example of the latter category and a potential contributor to their big league bullpen as soon as next year.
In their All-Star team for the entire minor leagues, Baseball America named Riefenhauser the first-team reliever, praising the 23 year old lefty’s low-90’s fastball and sharp slider. Riefenhauser was untouchable in 34 appearances at Double-A Montgomery, putting up a 0.51 ERA, a an 8.2 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 53 innings pitched. Triple-A Durham gave Riefenhauser a little more trouble, but he rebounded from a rough start to allow an earned run in just one of his final 12 appearances. Overall, Riefenhauser went 2-1 with a 3.05 ERA, upping his strikeout rate to 9.6 per 9 innings to along with a 3.5 BB/9 and a 0.9 HR/9. Riefenhauser especially shined against lefties, holding them to just a .122/.182/.171 line with 37 strikeouts against just 6 walks in 88 plate appearances, but he rode a solid changeup to pitch well versus right-handed hitters well, keeping them to a .183/.240/.263 line. Riefenhauser’s fastball at 89 to 90 MPH and good but not great secondary pitches weren’t enough for him to stick as a starter, but out of the bullpen, his fastball velocity and his secondary pitches are playing up and he hasn’t needed to adapt any sort of specialist mentality knowing that he can get righties almost as well as lefties. Riefenhauser doesn’t have sthe stuff for the late innings, but he has the abilitiy to succeed in two distinct roles in a major league bullpen: as a lefty specialist and also as a higher-leverage reliever who can go multiple innings, the role Alex Torres held for his first couple months in the major leagues. It’s amazing how far Riefenhauser has come since being a 20th round pick back in 2009, going from a long-shot to a player on the cusp of breaking into the Rays’ relief corps. Congrats to Riefenhauser on a tremendous season and everyone has to hope that this honor is only he tip of the iceberg for what Riefenhauser is capable of.