We haven’t done one in far too long, but welcome back to the Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag, where we take questions from you and answer them as thoroughly as possible. To submit a question, email email@example.com or comment on our Facebook page. Today we have a question from reader Drew C.
Q: Can you tell me how much the Rays are counting on C.J. Riefenhauser to possibly make it to Tampa this year? I see very little written about him, and to me, his minor league numbers are very good and suggest a Major League call up, possibly in 2014. I’d like to get your thoughts on Riefenhauser. And while I realize 27 is getting a little old to be considered a prospect, Kirby Yates had good stats last year also. Are Riefenhauser and Yates legitimate bullpen options for the Rays?
Riefenhauser and Yates were both added to the 40-man roster this season, telling us that the Rays value them immensely. Neither one features explosive velocity, but the Rays see two pitchers who could indeed make an impact as soon as this year.
As you saw in the stats, the lefty Riefenhauser went 6-1 with a 1.22 ERA and a 70-19 strikeout to walk ratio in 73.2 innings pitched between Double-A and Triple-A. He was unhittable against lefties, allowing just a .353 OPS, and righties were not much better at .518. Riefenhauser does not quite have the arsenal to keep that up, but good luck finding a pitcher who gets more out of what he has than Riefenhauser. It all starts with his slider, which is almost like a lite version of Chris Archer‘s because of everything he can do with it. Riefenhauser’s slider does not feature a ton of horizontal movement, but that actually helps him because it makes it into a weapon against batters of both sides. He uses it as an effective chase pitch, but what makes him stand out is his ability to spot it for called strikes as well. He does an excellent job commanding it, and he is unafraid of using it in any count. The question for Riefenhauser moving forward is going to be whether he can survive without relying too heavily on his slider at higher levels.
Riefenhauser’s fastball ranges in the 90-92 MPH range, and though it has some late bite, he still needs to work on commanding it. He throws it for strikes, but more advanced hitters will punish it if he does not do a better job keeping it done. Riefenhauser finishes his arsenal with a decent changeup that he uses against right-handed batters. The goal for Riefenhauser for this season will be to keep working on getting his other two pitches on par with his slider, and if he does, he could be an intriguing relief option for the Rays against batters from both sides as soon as the second half of this season.
Kirby Yates, meanwhile, could be ready even sooner. Yates has been through a lot, signing as an amateur free agent back in 2009, and being forced to prove himself at every level. The soon-to-be 27 year old Yates has done just that. Yates has always missed bats with his fastball in the 92-93 MPH range that plays up thanks to explosive movement. The issue for Yates was that it was moving so much that he could not throw it for strikes, but in 2013, he showed that he finally has that under control enough. Yates pairs his fastball with an excellent slider of his own that features tight break that has befuddled batters at every level. Yates started using it more against lefty hitters in 2013 as the changeup and curveball he dabbled with never really came along. But Yates actually started using his slider too much because his fastball simply wasn’t very effective against opposite-side hitters. Yates can get away with leaving the ball up against righties because of how well he hides the ball, but he gives lefties a pretty good look at his pitches, putting more pressure on him to execute location-wise. The good news: Yates is at the very least an effective righty specialist, and he could pitch his way into the role when the Rays need bullpen reinforcements in 2014.
Especially for relievers, we see many cases where a player’s major league performance pales in comparison to how good he was at Triple-A. That is true to some extent for both C.J. Riefenhauser and Kirby Yates. However, they feature impressive repertoires to overcome their lack of mid-90’s velocity and both should be useful middle relievers for the Rays for the next few years. For a Rays team that has dumpster dived for relievers as far back as we can remember, having two homegrown arms with the ability to be bullpen mainstays will be a welcome change.